Posted By: Geoffrey Langland<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 9 November 2009, 8:35 pm
0544 Hours, March 12, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Tyger, en route to Zeta Reticuli System
John woke with a start.
For a moment, the nightmare lingered--sensations of horror, disgust, and desolation. But the feelings quickly faded as his brain automatically began a quick check of his body. Decades of mental and physical training quickly calmed him, lowering his blood pressure and steadying his heart rate. This was followed by a flood of information from his brain: his location, his mission, and last and least important, his identity.
The elegant voice, tinged with an aristocratic accent, was that of Grimalkin, the AI that had been assigned to the Tyger. He was on loan from the Office of Naval Intelligence under the auspices of Lieutenant Marv Reardon, the ONI spook in charge of the mission. The Chief felt a pang of annoyance at the thought of Reardon.
"What is it, Grimalkin?" he said in a low, measured voice--the same voice he used whether talking in private with friends or under heavy enemy fire.
A small, round screen of black glass on the night table began to glow. The eight-inch form of Grimalkin appeared in hologram, wearing a gray robe with a long beard to match. AIs were allowed to choose their own appearance, and this one fit Grimalkin's intelligent, aristocratic (and occasionally pompous) personality quite well.
"You have woken two hours before your customary time. Are you well? Do you require a medical diagnostic?"
John waved a hand dismissively. "I'm fine."
"Perhaps a psychological evaluation?"
"By who? You?"
Grimalkin raised an eyebrow--his equivalent of a shrug.
"Thanks, but no," said John. "How far are we from Zeta Reticuli?"
"We will arrive at our destination in approximately twelve hours."
"Good." Two weeks in slipspace was more than enough. It began to play with your mind; that was the only explanation for the Chief's poor sleep. He'd never had trouble sleeping before.
"Do you require anything else? A mild sedative, perhaps?" Grimalkin offered.
"No thanks," said the Chief, trying to hint that he wanted to be left alone. He wondered why he was being tactful with an AI.
"Very well," said Grimalkin, and he faded away.
The Chief sighed. They hadn't even reached their destination, yet this was already one of the most troubling missions he had ever been assigned to. He had been given only the vaguest details. According to the briefing he'd received from his commanding officer, the UNSC had received a distress signal from a group of terraformers on Acheron, an Earth-sized moon orbiting an immense gas giant in the Zeta Two Reticuli system at the edge of human-colonized space. The distress signal claimed a small group of Covenant had attacked the colony. The UNSC had sent a detachment of Marines from a nearby system to deal with the threat--and promptly lost contact with them.
Though he wouldn't voice his concerns to his superiors, John thought it was a bad idea to send three Spartans on a rescue mission to the outer limits of known space. But orders were orders, and the Master Chief had been ready to follow them without question...until Reardon showed up.
The presence of an ONI officer made this a black op, and that bothered John. There was no reason for a rescue mission to be a black op unless there was something they weren't being told.
John rose, stretched, and did a few exercises to get his muscles loose. After a quick shower, he went to the back of his quarters, where his MJOLNIR armor hung.
A metric ton of flexible black alloy and gleaming, light green ceramic plates, a MJOLNIR suit--which only the biologically-enhanced Spartans could wear--featured built-in tactical and diagnostic computer systems (controlled by the Spartan's mind via a neural implant), plasma-resistant plating, and reactive metal liquid crystal embedded within its structure to enhance the Spartans' already above-average strength and reflexes.
Encased in the airtight suit, a Spartan could maneuver in a vacuum for ninety minutes before the suit's oxygen supply ran out. All of this was powered by a built-in fusion pack that could last for months, even years if used conservatively.
The helmet's visor was made from a special tempered glass that allowed a perfect field of vision, but prevented anyone else from seeing his face. All they could see was a golden mirror. He had fought alongside many enlisted Marines who had known what he looked like. And yet, the sight of an armored Spartan could inspire hope and courage in even the most jaded veteran.
He carefully donned the battle armor. Fully suited, he stood over seven feet tall.
With their ETA only twelve hours away, the Master Chief decided it would be a good idea if he and the other two Spartans got in a quick training session before their arrived at Acheron.
John, a.k.a. Master Chief Petty Officer (or simply "Master Chief"), a.k.a. Spartan-117, was the result of an experiment by the United Nations Space Command to create the perfect warrior. He was selected for his genetic perfection and abducted from his home on Eridanus II at the age of six, then trained for the next eight years. At the age of fourteen, he and the seventy-five other children in the program were put through a torturous experimental process that strengthened their bodies, reflexes, and senses--and killed half of them. A few months later, they performed their first military operation. Soon after they were gifted with their distinctive MJOLNIR battle suits, which increased their strength and reflexes even more, while giving them significant protection from enemy weapons.
He and his comrades--called Spartans after the famous warriors of Greek history and legend--had evolved into the most efficient and deadly weapons in the UNSC's arsenal in the war against the alien invaders known as the Covenant.
Comprising several different alien races, the Covenant had appeared in UNSC space in 2525 and declared war on humanity by decimating an entire planet. Since then, humanity and the Covenant had fought a long war of attrition. Given the Covenant's superior firepower and seemingly endless supply of ships and troops, many within the UNSC ranks were beginning to think the war was hopeless. And since the Covenant had made it very clear they intended to destroy all of humanity, even surrender wasn't an option. Humanity was doomed.
But the Master Chief didn't think so.
As long as he could slap another clip into a rifle, as long as there was a man or woman left to fight the Covenant, the war wasn't over. UNSC scientists were working feverishly to develop new weapons--weapons like the Spartans. They had learned much from confiscated Covenant technology. It was only a matter of time, the Master Chief knew, before they found a weapon powerful enough to send the Covenant back to whatever black hole they crawled out of.
After their training session, the Spartans met in a small conference room for mission prep.
The Master Chief's teammates on this mission were Oleg (nicknamed "Ollie," Spartan-026) and Linda (Spartan-058). When not using team designations, the Spartans referred to one another by their first names. They had last names too, but other than official functions those names meant nothing to them anymore.
Ollie was one of the more talkative Spartans, and the only one of the three who had been specifically requested by ONI. He had a strong background in science, particularly biology, and an intense curiosity tempered only by his loyalty to the UNSC and his fellow Spartans.
Linda was the Spartans' best sharpshooter. She could hit targets with a sniper rifle that the Chief sometimes couldn't even see. But like many snipers, she was a bit taciturn. All her movements were swift, efficient, and deliberate.
"Let's start with the vehicles," said the Chief. "What have we got?"
"Two Pelicans, with one Warthog each," said Ollie. Pelicans were the UNSC's workhorses, small troop carriers that could land and take off from a planet. They were lightly armed but tough, and as reliable as any mass-produced UNSC product. The M12 light reconnaissance vehicle--nicknamed the Warthog--was a small, squat vehicle with two seats and a mounted machine gun in the back. It turned over a bit too easily, but otherwise it was another time-tested piece of equipment.
"I don't like having only two Pelicans," said Linda. "You know we're going to have to take both of them down there, and then what do we do if they're damaged? We'll be screwed."
"Too late now," said the Chief. "What about troops?" He knew exactly how many Marines they had, but he wanted to be thorough and lay it all out before they had to start thinking about deployment.
" Two squads of ODSTs, twenty-six total," said Ollie. "Not even a full platoon. And as you might expect, they're not too happy with us being here."
The Orbital Drop Shock Troopers were the main special forces unit of the UNSC. Their specialty was orbital insertions via Human Entry Vehicles (HEV)--basically black metal pods, each containing one ODST, that launched from orbit and landed on the planet. "Feet first into hell," was their motto, and they often referred to themselves informally as "Helljumpers." Once in a while an HEV got too hot on entry and the Marine inside was baked.
Thus, the ODSTs had a reputation for being a little crazy. But they were the best troops the UNSC had--outside of the Spartans. The ODST had a long-standing rivalry with the Spartans, often referring to them as "freaks," and resented the way the Spartans had usurped their place as the military's premiere special forces unit. It didn't help that the Spartans were technically part of the Navy, not the Marine Corps; the Chief had overheard ODSTs referring to the Spartans as "swabbies," the age-old Marine term for Naval servicemen.
And then there was that incident in 2525...but John didn't like to think about that.
"The ODSTs are commanded by Sergeant Major Yelena Hurd," Ollie was saying. "We've also got ten ONI specialists--engineers, scientists, techs. This really is a black op. If there's any significant resistance out there, we're going to be outnumbered."
The Chief nodded. There was one great equalizer for such a circumstance, however. "What about weapons?"
"We've got one HAVOK nuclear warhead," said Ollie. "If all else fails, we can always blow them up."
And all of us, too, the Chief thought. HAVOK warheads had a thirty-megaton yield. Not exactly "light fuse, run away." When you set off a HAVOK, you wanted to be somewhere else--preferably in orbit.
The Chief suspected Reardon's orders were to nuke the site if there were any sign of a threat, or even if the UNSC just couldn't get anything useful from it. It was standard operating procedure on uninhabited planets after any Covenant encounter. "What else?"
Ollie listed their remaining weapons: ten MA5B assault rifles, five M90 shotguns, forty fragmentation grenades, two M19 SSR SPNKr "Spanker" rocket launchers, and twelve LOTUS antitank land mines. Each of them also had a pistol, and Linda had her modified sniper rifle.
"It's too bad we have no idea what we're getting into," said Linda. "I'd like to know what sort of atmosphere and terrain we're facing. They haven't told us anything." This was a particularly sore spot for her; she often adjusted her sniper rifle to best suit the mission parameters. Some missions called for careful shots placed within a centimeter of a particular target; others needed heavy cover fire. They required different scopes and different rounds.
"I know you're both frustrated," said the Chief. "All I can tell you is that we'll arrive soon. I'm sure Reardon will fill us in then."
"I still don't get it," Ollie said, dropping his voice slightly. "Zeta Two Reticuli is outside colonized space. Just outside, yeah, but still, what were terraformers doing there?"
The Chief shook his head. "I don't know. All we're here to do is find the terraformers and the Marines and get them--"
He stopped when Linda made a slashing gesture across her throat. Reardon entered the room a moment later. The door was to Linda's back; the sniper seemed to have a sixth sense about such things. The Spartans stood and saluted the lieutenant.
"At ease," said Reardon. Like many ONI spooks, Reardon was an unremarkable-looking man. He stood just under six feet, with the build of someone who kept himself fit but didn't make it a priority. His thick brown hair was longer than regulation allowed, but that was common among Intelligence officers. He had dark brown eyes and a round, youthful face. He couldn't have been older than thirty, the Chief decided.
"We'll reach Acheron in about eight hours," said Reardon as he got a cup of coffee from the kitchen. "Hurd is prepping the men now."
"Understood, sir," said the Chief.
Reardon nodded and took a seat at the table. "I know you're wondering what this is all really about," he said in a casual tone of voice, as if he were among friends and not their commanding officer. After a sip of coffee, he continued, "And yes, there's more to this than just a rescue mission. The fact is, we really don't know what happened on Acheron. And I can't tell you what we're going to find when we touch down, because I simply don't know," he said. "I just need to know you'll follow my orders, no matter what happens."
"Of course, sir," replied the Chief. He didn't look at Linda or Ollie, but he knew they both were thinking the same thing he was: the lieutenant's last statement had been the equivalent of an alert siren.
This was going to be very bad.
1739 Hours, March 12, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Tyger, in orbit around Zeta Two Reticuli d-1 (also called Acheron), Zeta Reticuli System
The captain of the Tyger was Ben Arad, a white-haired veteran whose true age was the subject of much rumor and legend among his crew. While Reardon was ostensibly in charge of the mission, Arad wasn't about to give him free reign of his ship or crew. When Reardon arrived on the bridge, Arad was already giving orders to scan the moon.
The Master Chief had entered with Reardon. As the captain and his officers busied themselves teasing out whatever information they could, the Spartan took a good long look at the moon in the viewscreen.
Acheron seemed to be composed varying shades of gray. The visible landscape was little more than a darker version of Earth's moon. The clouds, which appeared to be one giant storm, were more gray than white.
"Any sign of survivors? Or the Covenant?" Reardon asked.
"Stand by," Arad growled as he moved among his officers. Behind his faceplate, the Chief allowed himself a small smile. The captain's tone seemed to say: you may be able to order me around, but I'll be damned if my people take orders from a spook.
"Found them, sir," said the tactical officer, Papalimberis. "Looks like they're on the far side of the moon. I've got two vessels. A Prowler called the Mayberry, and a vessel of unknown origin." Prowlers were ONI's stealth vessels.
There never were any terraformers, the Chief realized.
"What can you tell us about the other ship?" Reardon asked.
"Preliminary scans don't match any known Covenant configurations," said Papalimberis. "I'm also getting very slim power readings from the Mayberry. Nothing from the other ship."
Arad didn't seem surprised by the lack of terraformers; the Chief supposed he'd seen through ONI's flimsy cover story from the very beginning. "Good work, lieutenant," the captain said. "Any sign of Covenant activity?"
"None, sir," said Papalimberis. "In fact, there's no evidence of any other vessels landing on Acheron at any time in the recent past."
Arad looked at Reardon. "What do you want to do?"
The lieutenant made a show of thinking it over. "Let's get a closer look at those ships."
Arad nodded. "Let's see the Mayberry first," he said to Papalimberis.
The tac officer tapped a few keys. The holo emitter in the center of the bridge flickered and a bright, three-dimensional image of the Prowler appeared.
"Sir," said Corrdin, the comm officer. "I've traced the source of the distress signal. It's not coming from the Mayberry--it's coming from the unknown vessel."
Arad looked at Reardon. The intelligence officer said nothing, but it was clear this was not news to him.
"Lieutenant?" said the Captain to Papalimberis.
"Scanning," said the tac officer. "Getting some deeper readings now. It's definitely not a Covenant ship--the hull composition is all wrong. I've never seen anything like it, sir."
The seemingly unflappable Arad looked surprised. "You mean this is a new alien race?"
Papalimberis looked up. "I don't know, sir. But it's possible. The ship is very big, too. About the size of one our smaller destroyers."
"Let's see it," said Arad.
Papalimberis worked at his console for a moment. The image of the Mayberry shifted and was replaced by a view of the alien ship. There were a few mutters of surprise from the bridge crew.
The ship was shaped roughly like a "U" but thicker in the center. It appeared to have crashed into the surface at a severe angle, and the rounded edge--the apex of the U--was half-buried in the terrain. At each end of the U were large structures, presumably some sort of propulsion system, but they were asymmetrical in design; one was positioned vertically to the plane of the ship, while the other lined up horizontally.
The overall effect of the derelict's shape was disorienting. It was far more alien in appearance than any known Covenant creation. While Covenant vessels looked somewhat organic, this alien ship seemed less like a vehicle than a living creature, albeit a loathsome one.
"That is one ugly ship," one of the crew muttered.
The Chief had to agree. In fact, he found he had an irrational dislike of the thing just from the holo image. Reardon, however, seemed entranced.
"Getting more readings, sir," Papalimberis said. "Judging from the condition of the hull, it's..." He hesitated, a puzzled look on his face. "It's at least a thousand years old."
Everyone was silent for a moment, digesting this information. "Incredible," said Arad.
"Captain," said Reardon without taking his eyes off the holo, "please enter orbit over the landing site. We're going to the surface." He tore his eyes away and looked at Arad. "Once we leave, I want you to make a system sweep for any Covenant vessels."
Arad raised an eyebrow. "We've got no evidence of a Covenant presence. And this is a big system. That will put us out of COM range for at least two days. You'll be on your own."
"Better that than risk a Covenant surprise attack." Reardon turned to the Master Chief. "Prep your team, Chief. We're going down."
"Aye, sir," the Chief said.
As the Chief followed Reardon off the bridge, Arad gave him a meaningful look. The Chief returned a slight nod. The message was clear: the old vet didn't like this any more than the Chief did.
1954 Hours, March 12, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
The two Pelican dropships they took down to the surface had been modified for the mission. One of them, Bravo 304, had a troop carrier attachment to carry the extra ODSTs--a Pelican's usual complement was no more than a dozen troops. The other ship, Delta 421, bore a cargo container for the specialists' equipment. The attachments made them a lot slower and less maneuverable than an unladen Pelican. It was just one more thing that bothered the Master Chief; if they had to get off-planet in a hurry, their options were already limited.
The initial drop was uneventful. The Pelicans landed two kilometers from the Mayberry. Once they had situated themselves, the Master Chief suggested to Reardon that he and the other Spartans scout the ships before Reardon and the Marines arrived.
Sergeant Hurd overheard the exchange. "Sir," said Hurd to Reardon, ignoring the way the Spartan towered over her, "with all due respect to the Master Chief and his team, three troops may not be enough to secure the ship, especially if there are enemy contacts."
The Master Chief had reviewed Hurd's record and was surprised to discover she had survived over a dozen engagements with the Covenant with minimal injuries--already beating the odds for most ODSTs. In her late thirties, Hurd stood only about five feet tall, with tightly-cropped blonde hair and bright green eyes. A long, pale scar ran from her forehead to her cheek.
Technically, the Master Chief and Hurd had the same level of rank, but the Marines had been assigned to the mission as security and the Chief controlled that aspect of the operation, so she and the rest of the ODSTs were under his command. That didn't mean she was going to call him "sir," though.
Reardon looked annoyed. "I understand your concern, Sergeant, but given how little we know about the threat and the difficult weather conditions, I would prefer the Spartans, with their powered armor, handle the recon."
To her credit, Hurd didn't argue further. "Understood, sir," she said, and walked away.
"As for you," said Reardon, turning to the Chief, "just secure the Mayberry and see if you can find any survivors. Don't do anything else until I get there."
The Chief nodded. He still wondered what the alien derelict was, and what ONI wanted with it...or had already tried to do with it. Whatever had happened, it may already have cost several dozen lives.
The Pelicans had dropped off the two Warthogs before landing; the Spartans would have to exit through the airlock. Acheron's atmosphere consisted mostly of nitrogen, crystallized carbon dioxide, and methane, and its temperature was well below freezing. The Spartans would be safe and warm for more than an hour in their MJOLNIR armor, and whatever oxygen the suit could draw from the atmosphere would be added to their air supply.
The Spartans selected their gear. Linda took her sniper rifle, while Ollie and the Master Chief each took an MA5B assault rifle. The workhorse of the UNSC, the MA5B was a mechanically simple weapon, not too different from its ancestors of five hundred years earlier.
During the interplanetary wars of the late twenty-second century, UNSC scientists had experimented with advanced nanotechnology, creating rifles made entirely from nanorobots that could make use of clips made from solid, generic high-density material to create any kind of ammunition--bullets, shot, grenades--within seconds, as well as reconfigure the entire weapon to fit whatever need the tactical situation required. The weapons had been heralded as the future of warfare.
At their first operational engagement, the enemy generated an electromagnetic pulse that fried the nanorobots, then used conventional weaponry to slaughter the UNSC forces.
Ever since, gas-powered weaponry had been UNSC standard issue. The MA5B had an electronics suite that aided in ammunition tracking, maintenance and a few other housekeeping functions, but if the suite was knocked out by an EMP pulse from, say, a nearby tactical nuke, you could still fire twelve rounds a second.
Each Spartan took spare clips, some frag grenades, and a medical kit, then crowded into the Pelican's airlock. There was a loud hiss as the chamber depressurized. Then the outer airlock door popped open and the Spartans set foot on Acheron.
The Master Chief had been on many worlds during his time in the UNSC (and even a few back in the misty days before the Spartan program), but they had always been habitable worlds—made so either by human terraforming or, far more rarely, cosmic luck. He had done a number of asteroid operations, but asteroids were small and couldn't hold an atmosphere.
No, this was about as close to hell as he'd ever been.
The wind was the worst part. It whipped by them with near-hurricane force and pelted them with an endless cloud of gray dust. Though it was currently midday on the moon, visibility was near zero. Using the link-up between his helmet and his neural implant, the Chief instinctively activated his image enhancements; the gray, dusty scene was immediately replaced with a bright tactical display. He had to dampen his audio receptors as well; the wind's howl was deafening.
Two green lights flickered on his heads-up display, indicating Linda and Ollie's status. "Let's get to the Warthog," he said over the proximity COM channel. "I'll drive. Blue Two, you're riding shotgun--I want you keeping an eye up ahead with the scope. Blue Three, you're on the gun."
The Chief got into the driver's seat of a Warthog. Linda took the passenger seat, her sniper rifle at the ready, while Ollie manned the triple-barreled, swiveling machine gun mounted in the rear of the vehicle.
The Chief scanned the landscape ahead. There wasn't anything even remotely resembling a flat stretch of ground. The Warthog was designed for all kinds of rough terrain, but it wasn't designed for a smooth ride. As he stepped on the gas and the Warthog vaulted forward, he wondered whether the civilian version of the Warthog, a favorite toy of many wealthy colonials, came with better shocks.
The 'Hog covered the distance in a quarter of an hour. At one point they hit a low hill and the bouncing Warthog launched into the air, coming down with a bone-crunching impact.
"Yee-ha!" Ollie shouted over the COM channel. "Excellent driving, sir!"
Behind his faceplate, the Chief grinned. Despite the war, despite the troubling mystery of the mission, despite Reardon, despite the hellish landscape of Acheron, they were having fun. He'd almost forgotten what it felt like.
"Coming up on the landing site," said Linda, scanning ahead through her sniper scope. "No sign of activity. The Mayberry's loading ramp looks like it's taken heavy damage."
The Warthog rolled to a stop a few meters from the Mayberry.
The ship was long and streamlined, its hull coated with a matte black material for increased stealth. It looked like just another hunk of black rock against the gray landscape of Acheron.
"All right, lock and load," said the Chief, shouldering his assault rifle. "Blue Two, scout the other side and see if there's any more damage, then come on in. Blue Three and I will enter through the ramp."
Linda's light on his HUD winked in acknowledgment, and she slowly moved around behind the ship. The Chief and Ollie approached the loading ramp. The sensor-resistant metal had been melted and twisted outward.
"The readings from the Tyger said the ship was depressurized from a dozen holes," said the Master Chief. "Most of them small, except for this one."
Ollie stopped near the edge of the gaping hole and moved in closer. "That's strange," he said, fingering a piece of the melted bay doors.
"What is it?"
"Well, the bay doors are blown outward," Ollie said. "That means the explosion came from inside the ship, which is strange enough. But some of this doesn't look like blast scoring. These look like acid burns."
"Acid burns? On Titanium-A plating?"
"Well, they're not very deep," said Ollie. "Just enough to be noticeable. But look—there are more on the floor. They're all over the place."
The Chief knelt down and sure enough, there were small gouges along the segmented plating of the ramp. As Ollie had noted, none were very deep, but the Chief knew that for an acid to even make a scratch on Titanium-A, it would have to be pretty damned corrosive.
And there was something more. Some of the gouges came in long streaks, while others flowered out violently from a central spot. They seemed eerily familiar to the Chief, and suddenly he knew why.
"These look like blood spray patterns," he said.
"You're right," said Ollie, surprised. "But...that doesn't make any sense."
The Chief stood. "Let's keep going."
They reached the door. Ollie gave an impressed whistle. It looked as if the door had been wrenched open--not by arms fire or explosives, but by some physical force.
"The entire ship must be depressurized," said Ollie. "If Reardon's techs can't get some air in here, we may have to abandon it."
"Or nuke it," said the Chief.
They crawled through the torn door into a dimly-lit hallway. The Spartans adjusted their image enhancement filters and the hallway flared into view. It was a wreck; walls were scorched and the floor was littered with spent shells.
"What the hell happened here?" said Ollie.
"Blue Two," said the Chief over the COM channel, "what can you see out there?"
"Not too much on this side of the ship, sir," said Linda. "No evidence of damage. I did find something odd on the ground--a piece of tubing. I think it may be organic."
"Hang on to it," said the Chief. "And come on in out of the wind. We've found evidence of a firefight in here, along with some unusual acid burns. Possibly a new Covenant weapon. Blue Three and I are heading to the bridge."
The Chief activated a map of the Mayberry on his HUD. It was a three-dimensional hologram that appeared to float a few inches in front of his visor, though it was really just generated within his helmet. He marked a red NAV arrow on the map and transmitted it to Linda. "Head to the engine room and see if you can get us some more power."
"Roger that," said Linda.
The next stop on their inspection was the cryo chamber. Yet another bizarre sight awaited them: six of the cryotubes had been shattered.
"Smashed from the inside again," said Ollie. "Like the loading ramp doors."
The Chief didn't reply. He'd started with a bad feeling about this mission, and every new discovery confirmed it.
Their next stop was the crew's quarters, which were empty. They moved on to the bridge, where the crew appeared to have made a last stand. Blood was splattered all over the floor and walls.
There was only one problem. Prowlers were smaller than the big cruisers or even a frigate, but at 160 meters long, they weren't exactly runabouts either. A typical Prowler had a crew of ninety, and couldn't fly with less than forty.
"Where are the bodies?" said Ollie. Despite all the blood, there wasn't a single corpse on the bridge.
"How about the ship's logs? Any visual records?" asked the Chief.
Ollie bent over the operations station. He spent a few minutes tapping at keys. "Looks like they were having power problems," he said. "And a lot of the cameras were damaged."
He worked at the console for a few more minutes while the Chief continued investigating the bridge. The strange acid burns were evident here as well.
"I've got something from the firefight inside the landing ramp, I think," said Ollie. "Hang on, I'll key it up."
The Chief sidled up next to Ollie to watch the small viewscreen. It flickered to life, providing a view of the hallway on the other side of the ramp airlock. The lighting was dark red--emergency illumination.
"Sorry, no sound," Ollie said.
As they watched, half a dozen Marines suddenly scurried into view. They were panicked and firing recklessly behind them. They reached the door on the other side of the hallway and, apparently unable to open it, started pounding on the metal.
"They locked the door," said Ollie. "The people inside locked them out."
The Chief didn't reply. He'd had to make hard decisions before.
The desperate Marines took up positions with their backs to the door, six assault rifles pointing at whatever was pursuing them from the other end of the hallway.
"Do we have any better angles?" asked the Chief.
"No, this is it," said Ollie. "Looks like the one at the other end got knocked out when the ramp doors were blown."
They continued to watch the doomed space marines. After a few moments of tense waiting, the troops opened up with everything they had at the unseen enemy. The Chief watched, expecting to see a Covenant--an Elite, perhaps, or a group of Grunts--rush the Marines. Something large and dark suddenly rushed in front of the camera, but the streams of bullets sent it hurtling out of range.
The Marines began to run out of ammo and switched to pistols in desperation. Then, without warning, something rushed them. They swarmed the Marines, whose began to fire wildly, and somewhere in the confusion the camera went dead.
"Back it up," said the Chief. "Can we get a visual on the enemy?"
Ollie ran the tape back, pausing at several points, but the images were too blurry to make out. Except--
"What's that?" said the Chief, tapping the screen at a long, thin curved shadow along one wall. "Is that a tail?"
"I don't know," Ollie said. "Could be. Whoever--or whatever--they are, they don't look like the Covenant."
"The LT can review the rest of the log," said the Chief, shouldering his rifle. "Let's head to the lab."
The laboratory was on the other side of the ship. They had to pass through the ship's conference room to get there. "Looks like the meeting was adjourned in a hurry," Ollie said, nodding at the chairs that were scattered around the conference table.
Like the rest of the ship, the lab was mostly dark. It was small, but well-equipped. On either wall was a long desk with three workstations each. Two long tubes—medical stasis pods, the Chief realized--rested in one corner. The rest of the room was taken up with a number of lab tables.
Standing on the farthest table was a pair of cylindrical glass tanks. A dark shadow floated in each--whatever they were, the Spartans' image enhancement software wasn't familiar with them and therefore couldn't extrapolate an image.
The Master Chief had seen more than a few science labs in his experiences with the creator of the Spartan-II program, Dr. Catherine Halsey. But he'd never seen one like this on a UNSC vessel.
"Let's check them out," the Chief said, motioning toward the tanks. For some reason, he felt compelled to raise his rifle as he walked. A faint memory of his dream from that morning haunted him.
Ollie had reached the tanks and was peering closely at one of them. His suit's sensors were scanning the thing inside, attempting to provide him with a detailed profile. "What the hell--"
There was a vibration throughout the ship, and the lights abruptly came on. As they did, the thing in the tank lunged toward Ollie. It took all the Spartans' training not to pull their triggers.
The creature kept scrambling frantically at the glass, trying to get at Ollie, who lowered his rifle to peer closer. "What the hell is it?"
The Master Chief remembered seeing images of deep sea crabs in science classes during the early years of his Spartan training. The thing in the tank resembled them, but it was bright pink in color and had a long, segmented tail. It had four pairs of "legs," though they looked more like long, thin fingers. The rest of the body consisted of two small sacs just behind the legs. Some sort of mouth, or tube, projected from the center of the thing's underside and seemed to suck at the glass. The tail whipped at the bottom of the tank.
"Did they find that thing here?" Ollie said.
"I don't know," said the Chief. He looked at the other tube. It also contained one of the creatures, but it lay motionless at the bottom of the tank, apparently dead.
"Blue Two here," said Linda's voice over the COM. "Are the lights working there, sir?"
"Affirmative," said the Chief. "We're in the lab. How are the engines?"
"Inoperable," said Linda. "They've been wrecked. I got a generator going for the lights, and life support if we can get it working, but we're not getting this bird in the air without some spare parts and a full repair crew."
The Chief paused, digesting the news. "Roger that. Rendezvous outside the loading ramp in five."
"Chief," said Ollie. "Look at this." He was kneeling next to a ragged hole in the floor. It was about twenty centimeters in diameter; the edges appeared to have melted. "More of that acid. It goes through to the next deck, at least. Four inches of titanium."
The Chief examined the hole, then stood. "Take a look at the computers. See if you can find anything out."
Ollie's gaze lingered on the hole, then he moved to obey the Chief's order.
The Chief checked the stasis pods. To his surprise, one of them contained a person. If the readouts were to be believed, a living person.
"Check this one out," said the Chief, gesturing with his rifle.
"Ensign Piers Batelli," Ollie read off the monitor screen. "Placed in stasis about ten days ago. It says they were 'unable to remove the parasitoid.' I think they're referring to one of those crab things." He fiddled with the controls. "I've got an image up. It looks like--looks like he has one of those things on his face. Want me to open it, sir?" There was a trace of eagerness in his voice. The discovery of a new alien life form, however horrific, was exciting to a science junkie like Ollie.
The Chief thought it over. "No," he said. "We'll let the LT look at it." All their questions--what the crab creatures were, where they had come from, and most importantly, what ONI wanted with them--would have to wait until the Mayberry was secure.
Ollie found the rest of the medical logs had been classified. No doubt Reardon would be able to access them. The two Spartans performed a quick inspection of the rest of the ship, then met Linda on the loading ramp.
"Where's that tube you found?" the Chief asked.
She reached into a compartment in her armor and drew out a small plastic bag taped tightly with EB Green, the Navy's ubiquitous green tape. She carefully opened the bag and handed the tube to the Chief. He peered at it curiously, holding it up to his faceplate.
It was a shiny and black, but dry and smooth, like the chitin of a beetle. It curved near the end in a very slight S-shape. The other end, which might have been the base of the tube, seemed to have been torn--or blasted--off, as Linda had said. On either side of the tube was a narrow segmented section, like the body of an earthworm. Peering through either end, the Chief could see a honeycomb of fleshy material.
"It looks like an organ," he said.
"But of what?" said Ollie.
The Chief gave the tube an experimental squeeze. He dropped it abruptly as a jet of pale liquid shot out over his shoulder and struck the side of the Mayberry, where it began to sizzle.
The other Spartans stifled a chuckle. If they could have seen past his faceplate, they would have caught a truly epic glare from their leader.
Ollie moved in for a closer look at the hull. "Well, we found the source of those acid burns, I think."
The Chief gingerly picked up the tube and handed it to Linda.
Reardon's voice suddenly barked in the Chief's helmet. "Master Chief! Sitrep."
"The Mayberry is secure, sir," the Chief said. "There's evidence of a heavy firefight with the Covenant. The engines have been rendered inoperable, possibly through sabotage. No survivors or bodies, except--"
"Did you find anything unusual?" Reardon asked in an impatient tone.
How much did the spook already know? the Master Chief wondered. "Yes, sir. We discovered creatures resembling large crabs in the science lab. One of the two specimens was alive. We also found a man in stasis with one of the creatures attached to him."
Reardon was silent a moment. "You say the Mayberry is secure?"
"All right, hold your position. We're coming in." The line went dead.
The Chief opened a COM channel to the other Spartans. "The LT will be here in thirty. Let's get into the Mayberry and out of this wind."
The ship's small rec room seemed to have been relatively untouched by the carnage that reigned elsewhere on the ship, so the Spartans holed up there to wait for Reardon. Linda began to take apart her sniper rifle, clearing the gray Acheron dust out of its more delicate parts.
"Permission to speak freely, sir," said Ollie. The Chief nodded. "I find it odd the UNSC didn't send a larger vessel with dropships for the original mission. ONI would have no problem commandeering a frigate or a cruiser, even for a black op. Why send a single Prowler?"
The question hung in the air for a few moments. Then Linda said, "A few years back, we had an op on a colony in the Trianguli system. Some holdouts from the Brushfire Wars were giving them trouble and we were sent to quiet them down, one way or the other. They sent Vinh, Fred and me.
"It was a quick operation, over in just a couple of hours really, so we got to spend some time with the colonists. They had a lot of stories, as usual. And one story they loved to tell was about a colony that vanished here in Zeta Two Reticuli. They called it Roanoke, which wasn't the name of the colony but seemed to be some sort of joke. According to the colonists, the UNSC went to ZTR to investigate Roanoke's disappearance.
"The official report concluded that the colony had been destroyed by unexpected seismic activity. However, ZTR was declared off-limits by the UNSC. The Trianguli colonists suspected a conspiracy. They had a lot of theories about what happened to Roanoke, but the rumor most of them believed was that the UNSC found evidence of a new, unknown spacefaring race operating in the system, and since they were already at war with the Covenant, they weren't looking to start another fight. So they just closed off the system."
Ollie said, "If there were another spacefaring race around here, it would make sense to use smaller ships and try not to draw attention to ourselves. Even the Tyger is a relatively small frigate. But the Tyger's readings said the derelict is thousands of years old. That's hardly evidence of the active presence of another race. And the Tyger didn't pick up any evidence of a former colony here."
Linda shrugged. "Maybe this wasn't the planet they tried to colonize."
"Yeah, and maybe the derelict wasn't the evidence they found," Ollie agreed. "Maybe someone else is out here."
It wasn't a pleasant thought.
2217 Hours, March 12, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Mayberry, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
Reardon's team of techs swarmed over the Mayberry, clad in blue environment suits and giving orders to the ODST Marines who were carrying the techs' heavy scanning equipment. The ODSTs wore their traditional gray-black suits with dark helmets and silver visors. They also had special rebreather units fitted to their backs to lengthen the time they could survive in the harsh Acheron atmosphere.
The ODSTs seemed none too pleased to have to lug around spook junk in addition to their suits, armor, and weapons. That was one thing ODSTs had in common with the Spartans: both groups disliked ONI.
But Sergeant Hurd kept her troops in line, and the grousing was kept to a minimum. It didn't matter much since Reardon seemed oblivious to it anyway, spending most of his time holed up in the laboratory.
Once the Spartans had helped the techs repair the door in the loading ramp bay and seal any remaining holes, the Master Chief made his way to the lab. He found Reardon and two ONI scientists in deep conversation near the stasis pod of the comatose Piers Batelli. Other scientists were peering at the living "larva" in the tank, which scrambled frantically at the glass as they murmured into their datapads.
As he approached, the Chief was able to pick up the scientists' discussion over the proximity COM channel. "We have to open it," one of them was saying to Reardon. "We need to confirm specimen viability."
"Are you crazy?" said another. "What if it didn't complete the infection process? It might jump right off him and come for us!"
Reardon waved a hand to silence their argument. "No, look, the logs say he had the thing on his face for an hour before they put him in stasis. There's no question infection has occurred. But we can't risk any damage to the specimen. If we have to, we'll move the entire pod into one of the Pelicans."
One of the scientists noticed the Chief looming over them and flinched, startled. Reardon looked up from the control panel. "Ah, Master Chief," he said. "How goes it out there?" Unlike the specialists, Reardon wore an ODST suit; the silver faceplate hid his face entirely.
"The airlock door on the loading ramp has been repaired and all holes sealed," said the Chief. "The techs estimate it will take about four hours to repressurize the ship using the oxygen tanks from the Pelicans."
"That's fine," said Reardon. "We'll be heading out to the derelict soon anyway." This instigated another round of argument as the two scientists--and a number of their colleagues--began jockeying for a chance get a first look at the derelict.
With an inward shrug, the Chief turned and left the lab. It was time to check in with Linda, whom he'd ordered to patrol the area around the Mayberry.
"Blue Two, report."
"Area secure, sir," said Linda. "It's quiet, if you don't count the wind. I have been getting some intermittent contacts on the motion tracker. Nothing specific, and it's never around long--could just be a rock rolling in the breeze."
"Acknowledged," said the Master Chief. He added Ollie to the COM channel. "Blue Team, be advised the lieutenant and his team intend to move on to the derelict momentarily. Blue Two, I want you to stay here with the remaining personnel. If they get attacked by whoever hit the Mayberry, I want a Spartan with them."
"Understood," said Linda.
"Blue Three, you and I will accompany the LT to the derelict."
"Aye, sir!" said Ollie, unable to hide the enthusiasm in his voice. The Chief suspected it might have bothered Ollie not to visit the derelict first, but Linda didn't care either way; for her, life was duty. And if things got dangerous at the landing site he wanted Linda, with her cool disposition and dead-eye aim, here to help the Marines.
The Master Chief headed to the airlock. The techs made room for him as he cycled through, sharing the chamber with a bored-looking ODST carrying a satchel of equipment.
Outside it was midnight on Acheron. The Chief activated his image intensifiers and the landscape flickered into his field of vision. A few ONI specialists and Marines were carrying equipment to and from the Pelican they'd landed a few dozen meters from the Mayberry. The Chief had insisted they leave the other Pelican at the original landing site with a skeleton crew. While the Mayberry seemed deserted now, something had attacked it, and until they knew what did--and where it was--the Chief wouldn't feel safe anywhere near the ONI ship.
He was certain Reardon knew more than he had told them. The LT had already reviewed the ship's logs. It was the first thing he'd done upon arriving. But so far, he'd brushed off the Chief's attempts to find out what had happened.
That bothered the Chief--a lot. His job on this mission was to keep everyone safe, and he was lacking the most important piece of information: the nature of his enemy. They weren't Covenant, he was sure of that. He was also sure that whatever had happened to the Mayberry had something to do with the alien derelict.
He called up a map of the area, derived from a few brief scans aboard the Tyger before they'd left. He located Linda, who was about hundred kilometers away and moving toward the ships in order to secure them, as per his orders. Ollie was in the Mayberry's engine room, helping the techs with their repairs.
Satisfied, the Master Chief began to walk away from the Mayberry, along the side of the Pelican and into the darkness of Acheron. The wind howled angrily, as it did endlessly on this desolate world. He suddenly recalled a legend he'd heard in his academic training about the banshee, a spirit whose wailing cry was said to be a harbinger of death. If the winds of Acheron were the cries of banshees, the Chief reflected, they could have been an elegy for all humanity.
The Chief quickly quashed that thought, remembering the war with the Covenant.
It was easy to forget the war out here; it was easy to forget everything out here, except the wind and the dust and the death. The image of the Mayberry's bridge, covered in blood, flashed through his mind, followed by that fleeting glimpse of whatever had attacked the Marines. A black shadow, a tail--
The Chief stopped short.
Had he just seen a blip on his motion tracker? He stood perfectly still, his eyes locked on the tracker. There it was again--a faint spot of red on the round blue field, just to the northwest. He turned and began slowly moving in the direction of the contact. He considered reporting it to Linda, then recalled her false alarms and decided to wait.
His map indicated a small depression in the landscape ahead. The image intensifiers worked to filter the weak starlight through the raging dust and provide him with some sort of view of the terrain. It was patchy at best, and his vision flickered with each strong gust of wind--a rare reminder of how much he relied upon his suit's electronics. Without the image intensifiers, he would have been nearly blind.
The contact flickered on his tracker again. This time it came from directly from the north, and seemed to be about ten meters ahead. He turned to his right and began to creep forward, one foot carefully placed before the other, his assault rifle held out before him.
The image intensifiers flickered; the wind howled outside his helmet. He couldn't see further than ten feet in front of him, but nothing seemed to be moving.
He reached the point where he'd last picked up the contact and stopped. He was in the center of the depression, an ancient crater from a meteor impact thousands or millions of years ago. His motion tracker was clear.
He took a few more steps forward. The far end of the crater seemed to have a dead spot in the image intensifiers, which meant there was some sort of hole or cave there.
The Chief switched on the flashlight attached to his rifle. The image intensifiers refreshed and provided a slighter better image of the crater. Behind his faceplate, the Chief frowned. The rock around the hole seemed odd; there were numerous small ridges and etchings that didn't quite look natural--or rather, they looked natural, but not like terrain. He took another step--
The motion tracker flashed red with a dozen contacts.
The Chief froze. He hadn't seen anything. The tracker indicated all the contacts had moved just five feet in front of him. He swept his rifle right and left and thought about pulling the trigger...perhaps it would draw the contacts out...
But the tracker had gone dark again. He stood still, thinking. There were a lot of things to consider. The wind could be kicking up rocks and dust; Acheron's weather was playing havoc with his suit's sensors; and if a dozen of the creatures that had killed the Marines were in front of him, he wasn't in any position to take them all on himself.
Slowly, the Master Chief backed away from the cave. Once he was out of the crater, he turned and headed back to the ship, forcing himself not to run.
His motion tracker remained a calm shade of blue.
Reardon had decided the equipment was more important than a strong troop presence at the derelict, so he wanted to take ten ODSTs, four specialists and the two Spartans in Delta 421, the Pelican with cargo container attachment.
"I have a better idea, sir," said the Master Chief. "Ollie and I will take one of the Warthogs and meet you there."
Reardon shrugged. "Fine with me," he said. "I can fit another three specialists without you hulks crowding the place."
The Chief checked in with Linda one last time; the techs were still hard at work trying to make the Mayberry inhabitable. He told her to stay inside the ship until they returned, and to report any significant contacts. The Mayberry's sensors were active now, so their range of motion detection was greatly increased.
The Chief wanted to try and contact the Tyger, but the Mayberry's comm system wasn't working yet. The Pelicans' comm systems weren't nearly as good as a Prowler's, with far less range and weaker encryption abilities, so it would be better to wait...just in case the Covenant were eavesdropping somewhere in the system.
They had no problems on their trip to the Derelict (the way everyone constantly used the word to refer to the alien ship, the Chief had started to capitalize it in his mind). He let Ollie drive and sat shotgun, his rifle on his lap, watching the fuzzy static of his image intensifiers as the terrain whizzed by. Acheron spent three-fourths of its local year in near-complete darkness, so there wouldn't be much relief from the somewhat unnatural world of image intensification until they were back on a colonized planet.
"Derelict up ahead," said Ollie. "Wow, look at the size of that thing."
It was huge--at least as large as a UNSC frigate, probably even bigger, though it was hard to make an accurate estimate due to the thing's weird U-shape. They were approaching from what they were calling the "port" side, under the assumption that the midpoint of the "U" was the front of the vessel (a fairly safe bet, given the apparent crash trajectory).
As they neared the Derelict, the Chief began to make out more details. Despite thousands of years of the harsh Acheron weather, the vessel appeared to be mostly intact. There was no evident wear on the hull or the "engines," though centuries of dust seemed to have caked several parts of it. Again the Chief got that slightly uneasy feeling he'd had when he'd first seen the thing on the Tyger.
"Incredible," Ollie was saying. "And to think, just twenty years ago, we thought we were alone in the universe."
I wish we still were, thought the Master Chief, if the Covenant and those...things on the Mayberry are our only neighbors. "Where's Delta 421?" he asked.
Ollie tapped a few keys. "Looks like they parked just under that portside engine," he said. "I'll bring us around."
As the Warthog slowed to a stop next to the Pelican, the Chief kept his eyes on the Derelict. The hull appeared to be heavily lined with ropey ridges, like heavily-twined steel cable. From a distance, it looked almost organic, or at least biomechanical. The Chief glanced at the flexible black alloy that connected the green plates of his armor and felt uneasy again.
There was a large hole--or door?--in the hull. It appeared to be part of the ship, shaped like a large oval, but since the ship had crashed at an angle, part of the hole was below the ground, and centuries of wind had blown several meters' worth of dirt into the vessel. The hole was nearly ten meters high at the top.
Reardon and his troop were milling around the hole, waiting for the Spartans. Some of the specialists were eagerly inspecting the hull, while others were peering around a few steps inside the hole. The Marines, on the other hand, looked edgy.
"Finally!" said Reardon, still hidden behind his silver visor. "Let's head in."
0140 Hours, March 13, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
Private Gabe Tolmie had seen a few alien ships in his time. More than a few; he'd seen countless Covenant dropships--the thing the swabbies referred to as "Spirits"--and Covenant cruisers, though most of those were on videos or, occasionally, through the window of a UNSC frigate.
But he'd never seen anything like this. From the outside, the ship was the ugliest piece of junk he'd ever seen. It was twisted and bent like a fat metal wishbone, with disgusting growths on either end that the techs were calling "engines." The damned things weren't even symmetrical, and even though some of the UNSC's own ships were asymmetrical, something about the Derelict's engines just seemed...wrong.
But as odd as the outside was, it wasn't nearly as loathsome as the inside. The walls were made from some sort of blackish metal--it reminded Tolmie of the wrought-iron fence he'd used to climb at his grandmother's house on Tantalus. The metal was criss-crossed with endless ribbed tubing and other textures that gave it an almost organic look, only adding to the feelings of discomfort he felt when he looked around.
Tolmie tried to shake it off. He was an ODST, the toughest of the Corps' toughest. He'd emptied a whole clip into the face of a Covenant Elite on their last mission and killed the thing--very few soldiers could claim such a one-on-one victory. Elites were nine feet tall and armed to the teeth. Tolmie thought of the necklace beneath his armor. One of the Elite's teeth hung from the leather strap.
He'd been terrified the whole time, of course. But it was a distant kind of terror, a screaming in the back of his head he could ignore. There was a stronger part of his mind, the part that kept him alive, the one that could remember all his training and keep that screaming in the background.
But this was different. This wasn't terror. It was dread. Something about the alien derelict felt so wrong. The young soldier felt displaced, like he was inside something that shouldn't exist.
"Stop," said Reardon, who was standing near the head of the group with the damned Spartan leader, whatever his name was. Bastards didn't even let you know their names. It was just Master Chief, or "sir," or if you were feeling cocky, "Spartan-117."
Reardon was consulting a datapad. "This way," he said, pointing to a corridor that split off to the left. "This should lead to the cockpit."
"How do you know?" the Master Chief said.
Reardon ignored him and started walking. Tolmie smirked. He didn't like spooks any more than he liked Spartans, but Reardon's careless treatment of the super-soldiers had been a source of constant amusement among his comrades.
The corridor looked the same as others. How long had they been walking? Tolmie wondered. The ship seemed huge. And yet it was thousands of years old, supposedly. It was confusing. Was this built by ancestors of the Covenant? Or just some other alien race? If so, were they still around, and more importantly, were they part of the Covenant?
Tolmie blinked. His motion tracker had gone off. He looked down at the tracker, which was attached to his forearm. There were no red dots on the screen, but he could have sworn he'd felt the gauntlet vibrate in warning.
He slowed down a bit and glanced into the darkness around him. The walls looked the same as they did everywhere else on the ship--black, ugly, and etched with strange ridges and holes and spines. Some of them looked downright creepy...like they were sculpture, or art. Heck, look at that one, Tolmie thought. Almost looks like it has legs...and arms...?
Just as he started to move in for a closer look, his helmet crackled. "Delta-Four, form up," said his team leader, Corporal Perlman. "Unless you've got a contact?"
Tolmie hesitated. He wasn't getting a heat signature from the thing. "No, sir," he said. "Forming up."
The Master Chief's nerves were on edge as he and Ollie followed Reardon. The ONI officer was practically running ahead of them, surrounded by a crowd of chattering scientists who alternated between gawking at the architecture and arguing with one another. The Chief had tried to take point when they had entered the Derelict, but after a few minutes Reardon had started walking ahead.
He obviously had a map of some sort, the Chief realized. It must have been in the Mayberry's logs. The Mayberry's crew had been here before. It bothered the Chief that Reardon wasn't sharing information. ONI's penchant for secrecy was well-known, but the Chief was certain their lives were being endangered.
All these concerns vanished from his mind when they entered the cockpit.
Like everything else on the Derelict, it was enormous—even cyclopean. The ceiling vaulted sixty meters above their heads. The walls were made from the strange black metal, ribbed with colossal ridges and other ornamentation.
The room was dominated by a gigantic machine. It reminded the Master Chief of a huge gunner's seat, complete with a mounted cannon.
The "cannon" was about fifteen meters long and angled upward, away from the bow of the vessel. At the base of the cannon was a rounded chair, and on the seat--
"Wow," said Ollie.
The scientists had already crowded around the "gunner's seat," and were talking excitedly. Reardon himself seemed uninterested in the thing and was looking at something in another corner of the room.
The two Spartans walked up to the chair, where the scientists reluctantly made room for the emerald giants.
The Master Chief gazed at the long-dead alien. It didn't look anything like any Covenant race he'd ever seen. This creature was at least twelve feet tall, larger than an Elite. Its flesh was a pinkish-white, though whether that had been its natural color or the result of thousands of years of frozen decay, the Chief didn't know. The head was elephantine, while the eyes were small and baleful.
"That is one ugly space jockey," Ollie commented.
A long tube ran from where the creature's "nose" seemed to be. "Is that a trunk?" the Chief asked.
"No," said a scientist dismissively. "It's a hose. He had a helmet on, though it's mostly disintegrated. No doubt it was some sort of rebreather. Or maybe just an environment suit. And those 'ribs' you see there are actually straps--he must have been strapped into this thing."
"What is this thing?" Ollie asked, gazing at the machine.
"Probably the flight controls," said another scientist.
"What's this?" said the Master Chief, fingering a hole in the mummy's lower torso. "It looks like he was shot in the back and the shell came out his stomach..."
One of the scientists was nodding and muttering; the Master Chief caught the phrase "embryo eruption" before another scientist jabbed the mumbler with an elbow.
The Chief frowned. It wasn't just Reardon, then. They were all keeping him in the dark.
He walked over to the LT, who was bent over what appeared to be a kind of console on the cockpit wall. He was rapidly working on something that looked vaguely familiar...
"That's UNSC equipment," said the Chief.
Reardon glanced up, his face unreadable behind the mirrored faceplate. "I see the legendary Spartan powers of observation are no myth," he said sardonically. "Yes, it was left by the previous team. Looks like they were making progress. We should be able to recover their work and continue it. They were close to getting the ship's computer system operating, I think."
"How?" said the Chief. "This thing's a thousand years old, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's well preserved," said Reardon. "No alien microbes to eat away at the wiring--if there is any; very little water vapor to rust the metal. No, I think we'll be able to get this thing going. And then perhaps we can get some information from its databanks."
The Master Chief realized he'd forgotten something important. "That's right, the ship's distress signal is working."
Reardon nodded. "Though we think it was only activated recently, when a colonial survey ship happened by." He stood up and gestured toward a tech. "Steinmann, bring that power cell over here. This one's burned out."
A tech brought over a large rectangular box, about a half-meter in height. "Get Leporov and the two of you swap the old one out. Then try to get some data out of this thing. And find out where that distress beacon is getting its power from."
He turned to the Master Chief. "There's another room I want to check. Grab the other Spartan and come with me."
Reardon led them to a small hole in the floor on the other side of the cockpit. It was only about half a meter wide, and it had been blocked off with UNSC barriers.
The Master Chief peered down the hole. He could see nothing but darkness. Activating his image intensifiers, he saw what looked like a thirty-meter drop to the floor below.
"Let's go down and have a look, shall we?" said Reardon. There was a tether anchored just outside the edge of the hole. Reardon hooked it onto his belt, then dropped into the darkness, rappelling down to the chamber below.
"Damn, it's hot down here," Reardon said over the COM channel. "Hold on and I'll send the hook back--"
But the Spartans had already jumped in the hole and were deftly climbing down the ridged wall, grabbing small handholds and moving almost as fast as Reardon had on the tether.
The room was enormous--far larger than anything they'd seen on the Derelict so far. It appeared to go all the way to the hull of the ship, as the entire space was vaguely cylindrical and curved off in both directions. A quick check of his sensors confirmed the Lieutenant's claim about the temperature: it was eighty degrees in the chamber, with a precipitation level close to that of a rainforest.
The Chief started to analyze the atmosphere content...it looked different than that of Acheron, which suggested there might be atmospheric processors operating somewhere on the ship...
...and then he noticed the floor.
"What the hell?" said Ollie. "What are these things? They look like--"
"Eggs," said Reardon. "Thousands of them."
The "eggs" were about a half-meter tall and dark green in color, with a puckered, cross-shaped indentation on top. The nearest ones were wet--or rather slimy, the Chief thought. Looking out over the sea of eggs, he could see the ones farther back were gray, and many looked as if they'd rotted and fallen apart.
Even more odd was the fine blue mist that hovered near the top of the eggs. Without going near the eggs, the Chief passed a hand through the mist and caught a band of bright blue light. More evidence that there was a power source operating somewhere on the ship.
"Sir," said Ollie--he was speaking to the Master Chief, but left it ambiguous so as not to slight Reardon, "look at this. This cluster of eggs has hatched."
The Chief walked over. Nearly a dozen of the eggs closest to the entrance were empty. Ollie was prodding something on the ground with his rifle. He lifted it into the light.
It was one of the crab-creatures from the Mayberry's lab—and it was dead. Its slender legs dangled sullenly from the barrel of the gun.
"There are more of them on the ground," said Ollie. "Not a dozen, though. I count seven."
The Master Chief looked at Reardon. The Lieutenant was standing off to the side, head down. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, but the Chief was starting to get an idea of what had happened here.
"Lieutenant," said the Chief, "we should--"
The thing leaped through the air as fast as a striking snake. Ollie's superhuman reflexes acted without thought as he sent a dozen rounds through the creature before it could reach Reardon's helmet. It flew backward, shredded, but a few drops of its blood spattered on the Lieutenant's armor.
Reardon quickly detached his vest and tossed it on the ground, where it bubbled and hissed. He backed away from the unopened eggs, toward the tether.
"Are you all right, sir?" asked the Master Chief.
It was a moment before the Lieutenant's COM channel clicked on. "I'm fine, Chief," Reardon said, panting. His voice was high. "My own damned fault really."
"Sir," said Ollie, "these creatures have acid for blood?"
"Yes, though not in large quantities," said Reardon. "Not in the larvae, anyway."
"Sir," said the Master Chief, "if these are just the larval stage, what do they turn into?"
Reardon was still breathing hard. "With any luck, you'll never need to know." He looked around. "These eggs seem to be able to sense our presence. We need to figure out how, then see if we can pack some of them up without them opening."
"Maybe you could freeze them," said Ollie.
Reardon looked at Ollie. "That's an excellent idea...Spartan," he said, obviously unsure how to refer to Ollie. Technically Ollie was a Special Warfare Operator Second Class, but "Spartan" served as the unofficial designation for all of them except the Master Chief. And with a few rare exceptions, no non-Spartan ever used their real names. "We'll have to reconfigure some of the equipment on the Mayberry," Reardon continued, "but yes, cryogenic stasis is probably the easiest method."
"Sir," said the Master Chief, "maybe we should get out of this chamber before any more of these things hatch."
"Good idea," said Reardon, and he quickly hooked his belt gear to the tether and hit the mini-winch on his belt. The Lieutenant shot up to the ceiling.
"Sir," said Ollie over a private COM channel when Reardon was out of sight, "what do you think happened here?"
The Master Chief had been wondering the same thing. "I'm guessing the previous team were attacked by the larvae--like the one in stasis on the Mayberry."
"Yeah..." said Ollie. "And the larva feeds off the host, like a parasite, then leaves it to make a cocoon and turn into...something else."
The Chief nodded. "Probably those things we saw in the video log."
"Nasty," said Ollie. "So where are the adult creatures now?"
"I don't know," the Chief said. "But the sooner we get off this rock, the better."
When they got back to the Derelict's cockpit room, Reardon told them to set up camp there. It would take at least a day to complete the work of the previous team and, with any luck, harvest the data from the alien computer.
The Master Chief pulled Reardon aside and opened a private channel. "Permission to speak freely, sir."
Reardon hesitated, then nodded. Once again, the Master Chief felt frustrated by his inability to read the Lieutenant's face behind the silver visor. He was beginning to understand why so many people found Spartans, with their impenetrable gold visors, so unnerving. "We haven't figured out what happened to the previous team. Whatever killed those troops on the Mayberry is almost certainly still in the area."
"I'm aware of the danger, Master Chief," said Reardon, "but you'll have to trust me on this. The potential knowledge to be gained by studying this new life form far outweighs the risk to any or all of us."
"Could you at least give me some idea of what we're facing? How to fight them?"
Reardon chuckled. "How to fight them? These things are animals, Chief. We're not dealing with life forms like our friend the pilot there." He gestured at the long-dead corpse sitting in the "gunner's seat." "They're some sort of pet that got loose, that's all."
"With acid for blood," said the Chief. "And they killed thirty well-armed officers. That's not a pet, or an animal. That's an enemy."
Reardon waved a hand dismissively. "I trust you and your troops to keep us safe, Master Chief. Just be alert. In the meantime, the sooner we get to work here, the sooner we can leave. We need to get the Mayberry launch-ready. If we can get it into orbit, the Tyger can tow it back."
"That's another thing," said the Chief. "We need to check in with the Tyger."
"Tomorrow," said Reardon. "It'll take hours to get communications working on the Mayberry, and I can't afford to spare any techs to set up the field equipment right now. In the meantime, I'd like you to secure both this site and the Mayberry."
The Chief shouldered his rifle as the Lieutenant walked away. With a last uneasy glance around the chamber, he opened a COM channel to Sergeant Hurd to begin preparations for an extended stay as guests of the Pilot.
The Master Chief knew Ollie wasn't happy about being sent back to the Mayberry, though no Spartan would ever utter anything resembling a complaint. But they both knew Ollie's tech skills would be much more valuable in getting the Prowler spaceworthy again. The Chief ordered Linda to come to the Derelict with another fireteam of ODSTs. That left only two teams with Ollie and the techs, but the Chief thought the Derelict was the more dangerous site. He gave Ollie orders to retreat to the Derelict at the first confirmed hostile contact.
It was relatively easy to seal off the cockpit from the rest of the ship and make it airtight, then pump out the dangerous atmosphere and replace it with something more breathable. Two of the three main entrances to the room were sealed with nanotube plates (NTPs), while a plastic airlock had been installed over the third entrance as well as a smaller one over the hole that led to the egg chamber. The Chief had wanted to seal that off, but Reardon was adamant the specialists be able to access it.
The Chief asked Sergeant Hurd to have a team of ODSTs make regular rounds of the corridors just outside the cockpit. He also had Linda place motion trackers near each entrance. After seeing how quickly the specialists on the Mayberry had been killed, he wasn't taking any chances.
Hurd was standoffish as usual. While the Chief understood where the ODSTs' hostility came from, he sometimes thought it seemed a bit crazy during such a desperate war. But then, the ODSTs were an all-volunteer force who risked fiery doom every time they squeezed themselves into their drop pods. You had to be a bit crazy to do that.
Once the cockpit had been transformed into a camp, the Chief checked in with Ollie, then decided to grab a few brief hours of sleep.
He dreamed of dark claws and silver teeth.
0900 Hours, March 13, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
A gloved hand banged sharply against the reflective visor. "We're up, chief."
Tolmie jerked awake and instinctively grabbed his rifle. He heard a deep-voiced chuckle over the proximity COM channel.
"Dammit," Tolmie muttered. "Do you have to do that every time you wake me up, sir?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." His team leader reached down and yanked Tolmie to his feet. While Tolmie wasn't short, Corporal Perlman was over two meters tall, with a wrestler's build to match. When not wearing his helmet, Perlman's shaved head and ubiquitous sunglasses made him even more imposing. Hell, Perlman probably had sunglasses on underneath his helmet right now.
Someday, Tolmie planned to swipe Perlman's helmet and draw a pair of sunglasses on the visor with a marker.
"And don't call me 'chief,'" Tolmie said. "The only chief around here is that turtle freak." 'Turtle' was one of the ODSTs' many nicknames for Spartans; this particular one referred to their trademark green body armor.
"I'd love to see you say that to his face," said Perlman. "He'd punch you on top of the head and sink you halfway into the ground, like in one of those kids' vids."
"You a big fan of kiddie shows?" Tolmie asked, smirking, as he checked his rifle.
"Nah," said Perlman, shouldering his own weapon. "But my nephew is."
Perlman had been an ODST for more than five years. Since the average survival rate of an ODST was about three years, that made him a grizzled veteran. Tolmie had been an ODST for about ten months; even Sergeant Hurd had just finished her third year.
Perlman should have been at least a sergeant by now but had refused promotion several times, saying he was a born grunt. He was certainly one of the most capable members of their platoon and had a dozen medals (which he hauled around carelessly in an old MRE box).
"C'mon," Perlman said. "Let's grab Makan and get on patrol."
"Some spook dropped a hundred-kilo console on her foot," Perlman chuckled. "Woman let out the loudest curse I've ever heard. Anyway, they sent her back to the Mayberry to get patched up in the infirmary."
Tolmie followed Perlman to the other side of the room, where the ONI techs were swarming over the Pilot's chair and what they were certain was the main computer interface, which was mounted at a slant into the wall. After some initial arguing, they had decided to pull the Pilot off the seat. It took the strength of three ODSTs and the Spartan MCPO to detach the thing and get it on the floor. Makan was helping some techs pull a panel off the wall--or what passed for a panel on the centuries-old ship. There were no obvious seams but there were vague oval shapes with what seemed like sockets on them.
PFC Amil Makan had been in the ODSTs about five months longer than Tolmie. If Perlman was the grizzled veteran type, and Greer the typical ODST (a walking ball of aggression), Makan fell somewhere in the middle. Tolmie didn't know much about him, except that he'd grown up on Mars and that his father had been a Marine who was killed in action during one of the earliest battles with the Covenant.
Makan was happy to get away from the techs. Perlman led them to the makeshift airlock. They looked out at the cockpit through the plastic window as the airlock depressurized.
"Look at that," said Makan, pointing to the Spartan MCPO, who was laying on the floor on the other side of the cockpit. "I guess even freaks need to sleep sometimes, eh?"
Tolmie laughed; Perlman didn't say anything. The airlock cycled out and the other door opened.
"Watch your trackers," said Perlman. "Everyone's been picking up intermittent blips. The spooks say it's just interference from the ship, but I'm not buying it. If anything moves near you--except one of us--shoot it. And keep together. No wandering off."
They moved forward down the tunnel, which soon linked up to the gigantic main corridor that ran the length of the Derelict. Their orders were to stay within the smaller network of tunnels that ran near the cockpit. Perlman took the point; Tolmie and Makan spread out behind him in a triangle formation.
"Anyone getting anything?" asked Perlman over the COM channel.
"Quiet as a mouse," said Tolmie.
"Nothing here," said Makan.
"What are we watching for, sir?" said Tolmie. "What attacked the Mayberry?"
"Don't know," said Perlman. "The spooks aren't saying. I don't think even the Sergeant knows."
"Aren't we looking for those big pink crabs?" asked Makan.
"Nah," said Perlman. "Whatever killed those spooks on the Mayberry, they weren't crabs. Those things just glom onto your face. Or so I heard one of the eggheads say."
"Gross," said Makan.
"Might be an improvement on you, Makan," said Tolmie. The PFC responded with a polite suggestion that the private do something that would have required him to be hermaphroditic and double-jointed. Perlman's deep-throated laughter made their helmets vibrate.
They spent an hour patrolling the corridors. None of them saw so much as a hint of red on their motion trackers. They spent a lot of time looking at the weird ridged walls.
"What the hell is with this ship?" Tolmie said. "Did these aliens not understand how to make a regular damned wall? Everything has to be bumpy or ridged or something."
"Well I guess next time, they can hire you to be their interior decorator," said Perlman. He checked his watch. "We're due for a shift change in fifteen. Let's do a quick sweep of these last few corridors and head back."
They were now in a section that wound slightly below the cockpit deck. As they moved down the corridor, Tolmie noticed a brief flash of static on his visor as it automatically wicked away condensation.
"It's warm down here," he said, the sentence coming out more like a question.
"Downright humid," said Perlman. "I've got 290K on my HUD. That's a lot warmer than the cockpit."
"Sir," said Makan, "look at the walls."
They all stopped and moved toward the walls. They were still black and ridged, but were shiny, rather than dusty, and there seemed to be spots of green and gray.
Tolmie reached out a hand and touched a green spot. When he pulled it away, a slimy substance stuck to his fingers.
"Okay, now that's gross," said Makan.
"What the hell is it?" said Tolmie, fingering it between his gloves. "It rolls like...like warm resin."
"It's probably a slime mold," said Makan. "Remember what happened to that colony on Ross II? You're done for. We should quarantine you right now."
"Shut the hell up--"
"Both of you shut up." Perlman was quiet for a moment. "Maybe the spooks have been down here," he said. "Or maybe the Mayberry team was earlier..."
"I doubt it," said Makan. "And why is it warmer here?"
"Let's get back to the cockpit and report this," said Perlman. "Our watch is over anyway."
Hefting his rifle, Perlman again took the point. Makan moved up behind him, and Tolmie took the rear. Suddenly that creepy feeling the private had when they'd arrived at the Derelict was back. Tolmie found himself glancing behind him as they made their way through the winding corridors.
He was looking over his shoulder when dark claws grabbed him from above.
Makan and Perlman both stopped and spun at the sound of Tolmie's scream.
"Tolmie?" Makan said. He couldn't see the private anywhere, but his screams blared over the proximity COM channel.
"What the hell--?" Perlman pushed past Makan, his rifle out before him.
"Help me! They're everywhere!" Tolmie was screaming.
"Where are you?" Perlman shouted.
Tolmie's screams were getting fainter; the proximity COM channel was fading. "Switch to the general channel, Tolmie!" Perlman shouted. "Where are you, dammit? Try and get a location from him, Makan."
Perlman switched off the proximity channel opened one to Hurd. "Sergeant, we've got hostiles. Something just took Tolmie."
There was a brief pause on the other end. "Roger, Corporal. Can you visually confirm hostiles?"
"No--he's just gone! He keeps screaming and he says they're everywhere--hold on." Perlman switched back to the proximity channel. The screams were very faint now. "Makan?"
"Nothing, sir," he said. "But I think I know how they got him." He pointed with his rifle at a large hole in the ceiling.
Perlman cursed and switched back to the sergeant's channel. "Hostiles appear to have taken Tolmie through a hole in the corridor ceiling," he said. "Do we pursue?"
"Hold on." Another pause. When Hurd came back, she sounded angry. "Negative, Corporal. You are to return to base immediately."
"Return to base immediately, Corporal."
Perlman clenched his jaw. "Yes, sir," he said, and switched back to the proximity channel. Tolmie's screams were very faint now.
"Well?" said Makan.
"We're heading back," said Perlman.
"Our orders are to return to base," said Perlman. "Let's go, Private."
"I can't believe Hurd would abandon--"
"She didn't want to," said Perlman. "It's that damned spook."
"Or the turtle," Makan muttered.
"No, not him," said Perlman.
"Well, screw Reardon, then," said Makan, hefting his rifle. "Let's go after Tolmie."
"I think it's too late," said Perlman.
The COM channel was silent.
0830 Hours, March 14, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
The Master Chief was angry.
It took a lot to get him angry. He'd seen fellow Spartans torn apart by enemies and felt no rage, only sorrow and a determination to fight that much harder. And he had a deeply entrenched respect for the chain of command, one that had rarely been tested. All of his COs had been at least competent, and they were often brilliant.
Lieutenant Reardon was a different story.
"Sir," said the Chief, "I'm simply requesting permission to search for Tolmie. He might still be alive."
There were five of them in the impromptu meeting: the Chief, Reardon, Sergeant Hurd, and the two remaining members of the ODST fireteam, Perlman and Makan. Five people, all wearing reflective visors that completely obscured their facial expressions. The Chief was beginning to see why so many people thought the Spartans were really robots.
Reardon shook his head. "Look, he probably just missed a step and fell down a hole. We know nothing about this ship. He could be anywhere by now, and if we send more people out to look for them, we'll probably lose them too."
Perlman growled, "He didn't fall down a damned hole--"
"I didn't give you permission to speak, Corporal."
"Tolmie may have gotten lost, sir," said the Chief quickly, "but from Perlman's report it sounds as if something captured him. We know from the Mayberry's logs that an unknown enemy"—unknown to me, but not the Lieutenant, the Chief thought--"attacked and presumably killed the crew. It's reasonable to believe that enemy could be operating on this ship.
"I recommend you and your team return to the Mayberry until my team and Sergeant Hurd's Marines can secure the Derelict."
"Damn straight," Makan muttered. Perlman smacked him on the back of the helmet.
"Not an option," Reardon said to the Chief. "We have to get as much as information from this ship as soon as possible."
"Why, sir?" said Hurd. "There's no evidence of a Covenant presence on the planet, or even in the system recently, according to the Tyger's sensor analysis before we dropped."
Before Reardon could answer, the Chief said, "Maybe not a Covenant presence..."
Reardon turned sharply toward him. "I don't know what that means, Master Chief, but I'd like to remind you both that this is my mission. Is that understood?"
The Master Chief and Hurd looked at each other. "Understood, sir," said the Chief.
"Good." He paused a moment, thinking. "Let's limit our patrols to the route directly from the cockpit to the entrance and seal off any corridors in-between with NTPs from the Pelican. That includes any holes in the floor or ceiling--I'll have a couple of my techs go over the route. I'll try to expedite the data retrieval process."
"And we need to contact the Tyger," said the Chief.
"I'll let you handle that, Chief," said Reardon. "Keep me informed." He turned and walked back to the techs.
"Permission to speak freely, sir," Perlman growled to Hurd over the proximity COM channel.
"The answer is no, Perlman," said the sergeant. "We have our orders, and I'm not losing any more of my troops on this damned ghost ship."
The Master Chief hesitated, then opened a private channel to Hurd. "He knows what they are. The creatures."
"Yeah, I figured," said Hurd. "Asshole." She switched back to the proximity COM channel. "Let's get those NTPs and start sealing the corridors." She turned to the Spartan. "Chief."
"Sergeant." As the ODSTs headed for the airlock, he saw Perlman glance back at him and give a quick nod. He nodded back.
The Chief opened a COM channel to Ollie. "Blue Leader to Blue Three."
"Blue Three here, sir."
"What's the status of the repairs?"
"The techs says this bird will fly again, though I don't believe it," said Ollie. "But they're working like demons here. Fifteen-hour shifts. It's almost like they've got a deadline or something."
"Or just want to get out of here before someone shows up," said the Chief.
"Maybe. What's the status on the comm system?"
"Still down," said Ollie. "That's one they haven't spent too much time on, but they tell me it should be ready by 1200 hours. But the real story is the engine. It was obviously sabotaged--and a pretty clumsy job of it, too. Looks like someone just took a hammer to it."
"So it was one of the crew, then," said the Chief.
"I think so," said Ollie.
"Any ideas why?"
"Nope," said Ollie. "It doesn't make any sense. And that reminds me...I was watching over the shoulder of some of the techs when they were trying to translate the distress signal from the derelict. They said something seemed off about it...like it didn't seem like a typical distress signal. That's as far as they got, though."
The Master Chief considered his options. The secrecy Reardon forced on the operation was hindering his ability to ensure everyone's safety. The LT seemed to want the Spartans there as a contingency measure, in case things went bad. The Chief could ask Ollie to hack into the Mayberry's logs; if Reardon hadn't erased them, there was a good chance the Spartan could pull it off.
But it would be at the risk of a court-martial, not only for the Chief but for Ollie as well. The Chief had no doubt Ollie would do it without question--and without reservation--if ordered, but so far the situation didn't warrant the risk.
And if it came down to it, the Chief was fairly certain he could get the information out of Reardon...one way or another.
"Report as soon as you can confirm what time the comm system will be operational," the Chief said to Ollie. "At that time I'll return to the Mayberry to contact the Tyger."
"What about the LT?"
"He told me to handle it," the Chief said.
"Understood," said Ollie. "I'll let you know when the comm system is up."
"All right. Blue Leader out."
1130 Hours, March 14, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
Perlman carefully lowered the NTP into place. Once the edges touched the other plates, Makan leaned in and use a small nanogun to smear a gray paste along the seams. The paste was filled with billions of microscopic robots that would stitch the nanotubes of the plates together at a molecular level, making the four NTPs as strong as if they had been a single plate--which is what they essentially would become. Once the NTPs were combined, the nanorobots would "die" and drop off the plate like gray dust. The whole process took less than three minutes--but three minutes were an eternity when you were trying to seal an entrance from an oncoming enemy.
"That's the last one," said Perlman, standing up. He stretched his back. "Damn, that hurts."
"I would think you'd be used to bending over, old man," said Greer.
"That's insubordination, private," said Perlman. "I'll have you hung up by your thumbs for that."
"Anything to get out of this bughunt," Greer said.
PFC Lydia Greer had returned from the Mayberry two hours earlier, her toes once again intact. The incident had not improved her already less-than-pleasant mood, and Perlman and Makan had been the unlucky witnesses to that fact. She was six and a half feet tall, bigger even than Perlman, and all muscle. She had a mouth like a dock worker and more kills than Makan and Tolmie combined.
Makan put the nanogun back in the tech kit and picked up his MA5B from where it leaned against the wall. "No hunting necessary. The damn bugs are here. And they got Tolmie."
"Damn greenie," Greer said, quickly followed by an uncharacteristic "I mean, poor kid."
"He shouldn't have been in the rear," said Makan. "It's my fault."
"Shut up, Makan," said Perlman as he shouldered his rifle. "He wasn't a greenie. Remember that Elite he killed? Any of us could have been back there and the same thing would have happened."
"We should have gone after him," Makan said. "Right away, without checking in."
"Don't question my decisions, private," Perlman said quietly.
"Sorry, sir," Makan said, genuinely abashed. "But they should have let us go after him. I can't believe that damned turtle let him die. Aren't they supposed to be heroes?" The last word was said sarcastically.
"Stow that shit, Makan," said Perlman. "First off, it was the LT's decision, and that 'turtle' happens to be an enlisted man, so he has to do what the Lieutenant says, just like you and me."
Perlman sighed. He sat on the floor and leaned back against the wall. "Second, I know it's traditional for us Helljumpers to hate the Spartans, but maybe you've never seen one in action.
"About two years ago the Covenant hit a colony on Delta Agma II. We dropped to cover the civilian evac, but the Covenant weren't glassing this one, for some reason--they landed with about a thousand troops. My squad got pinned down by a Covenant bunker and two of those damned plasma turrets. The plasma was eating away at the hillside and we had nowhere to go. Our Sergeant told us to get ready for a run at the bunker. I've never been so sure I was about to die.
"Suddenly the shooting stopped. When we peeked over the edge of the hill, we could see a commotion going on inside the bunker. Five minutes later, one damned Spartan walks out and gives us the all-clear. There were twenty Covenant troops in that bunker...and that Spartan killed every last one of them.
"Fact is, if you make it another couple of years in this outfit, chances are it'll be because a Spartan saved your life. More than once, probably. I know I'm on borrowed time."
Makan and Greer were silent. It was more than they'd ever heard Perlman say at one time.
"Incoming," said Greer, and they turned to see Sergeant Hurd coming toward them.
"Perlman," said Hurd. "The Spartan is taking the Pelican back to the Mayberry to make contact with the Tyger. We're rotating the fireteams, so I want you to swap with Echo and remain on the ship."
"Understood, sir," said Perlman.
After Hurd had left, Greer said, "Damn it, I just got back from that ghost ship."
"Don't you mean spook ship?" said Makan.
Greer's response to this lame joke was a suggestion that would have required Makan to be hermaphroditic and double-jointed. For the first time since Tolmie disappeared, Perlman laughed.
The Master Chief stood passively in the plastic airlock as it cycled. When it finally opened, he took a quick look around the cockpit room, spotted Reardon and made straight for him.
Reardon grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. He opened up a private COM channel. "We're done with this, Master Chief."
"But sir, the Tyger could be incapacitated or destroyed. The Covenant could land at any moment. We need to prep the Pelicans for emergency dustoff."
"We don't even know the Covenant are here," Reardon said. "And the Tyger could simply be out of range. Again, this project is just too valuable to scrap unless it's in immediate danger of being captured by the enemy—which it isn't. With all due respect, Master Chief"--Reardon's voice was getting tight with anger--"you're a noncom. Leave the planning to me."
Reardon paused to take a breath, and when he spoke again, his tone was conciliatory. "The information we learn from this could give us the edge we need to defeat the Covenant. We're not going to abandon it to save our own skins, Chief."
The Master Chief bristled at the implication of cowardice, but he let it pass. "I understand the importance of the mission, sir. But we need to be prepared for emergency evacuation. If the Covenant have destroyed the Tyger, then we're alone out here until Command can send another ship. We need to be ready to defend ourselves against a Covenant attack."
Reardon shook his head. "The Covenant will simply glass the planet if they find us."
"Not if they see this ship," said the Chief. "They may be just as curious as we are."
Reardon thought it over. "All right, Chief. Do what you need to so we can get out of here in a hurry. But I'm not leaving until the last possible moment."
"Yes, sir." The Chief gave a quick salute as Reardon walked away.
Linda had watched the exchange from the far side of the cockpit where she guarded the airlock. She opened a private COM channel to the Chief. "What's our situation, sir?"
"I couldn't get a response from the Tyger. They might be out of range, but I'm not taking that chance. Reardon has given permission to prep the Pelicans for emergency dustoff--but barely. He's determined to stay here until the Covenant are knocking on that airlock."
The Chief was silent a moment. "I have a job for you the next time you're on patrol." He quickly outlined his plan to Linda.
"Understood," she said, without hesitation.
The Chief closed the channel and sighed. He pulled the MA5B off his back and hefted the weapon, his hand wrapping around the handle with familiar ease. He was tired of dealing with Reardon...and itching for a fight.
Tolmie awoke slowly. His first sensation was one of being wrapped in complete and total warmth and safety, as if he were a child in his mother's arms. In that blissful moment between sleep and waking, his heart rate was steady, his blood pressure low, and endorphins bounced through his brain.
Then he opened his eyes.
The first shock came as he realized his face was exposed to the air. The visor of his helmet was gone; the edges were melted, as if some molten liquid had been poured onto it. But his face didn't feel burned. All he had was an ache around his temples, as if his head had been squeezed in a vice.
Then it came to him: the alien derelict, Perlman and Makan, the strange warm corridors--being grabbed from above, dragged by clawed hands through what seemed like miles and miles of tunnels...
He tried to move his arms, but something was holding him fast. He couldn't look around, because whatever was holding him had also immobilized his helmet. For a moment, he wondered whether he was in the Mayberry's infirmary, bound to a bed. But he was sure he was being held up vertically, not lying down.
The air was warm and wet. And rank; there was an awful odor in the air, like decayed flesh mixed with hot soldered metal.
"Hello?" he called out. "Hello? Is anyone there?"
Something hissed in the darkness.
1630 Hours, March 14, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Mayberry, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
The pale blue sun of Acheron had managed to peek through the cloud cover just long enough to be seen as it sank below the horizon.
"Blue sunset," said Makan. "Never seen one of those before."
"You haven't really now," Greer muttered. "Man, I hate this planet."
"Moon," said Makan. "Technically it's a moon."
"Technically you're an idiot," Greer said.
"Love you too, hon." This got Makan a vicious whack on the side of his helmet.
"Pipe down," said Perlman. "Here comes a Spartan."
They were on guard duty outside the Mayberry. The other Spartan was coming over--the one who wasn't the Chief and wasn't the woman, which was the only way they could identify him.
The ODSTs gave a quick salute to the Spartan, who returned it. "Anything unusual?" he asked.
"Negative, sir," said Perlman.
Ollie looked out at the horizon. "The Mayberry's sensors are online. We're still getting intermittent motion contacts in the area."
Perlman nodded. "The spooks think it's just the wind." The corporal bit his tongue, wondering whether the Spartan would take offense at the term "spooks."
Ollie just nodded. "I don't think so," he said. "There's something out here. They're just not showing up on...on our..."
He trailed off. The ODSTs looked at one another; Perlman shrugged.
"I'm getting something," said Ollie. "A weak motion signal, to the west. But it's getting stronger."
Makan lifted his tracker. "Nothing on mine. Wait--there it is. Looks like it's moving toward us."
Ollie hefted his rifle and moved forward. He maxxed out his image intensifiers and scanned the horizon to the west. There was still enough light that if anything were moving out there, he'd pick it up.
"Signal's getting stronger," said Makan. "Multiple contacts. Fifty meters and closing."
Perlman walked up next to Ollie. "I can't see a damned thing," he said.
"Twenty meters," said Makan.
Ollie looked down at the ground. "Tunnels," he said.
Perlman said, "What—"
The ground erupted beneath Makan. Long dark arms reached out and grabbed his legs, pulling him into the gray dirt as he screamed and fired his rifle wildly. A stream of bullets caught Greer in the neck. Blood sprayed as she fell.
Perlman lunged forward to grab Makan's arm, followed by Ollie, who grabbed the private's other hand. Makan was in the dirt to his chest and still screaming. Perlman wrenched as hard as he could.
"Don't let me go!" Makan was screaming. Ollie was gripping his right arm, pulling with enhanced strength that could flip a Covenant tank.
There was a tearing sound as Makan's arm came off at the socket. Makan's other hand was torn from Perlman's grip and the Marine was gone.
Perlman was on his knees, panting and cursing, while Ollie went over to Greer and checked her vitals.
"She's dead," said the Spartan. "Come on, we have to--"
The ground exploded as they were surrounded by black claws and silver teeth.
The Master Chief's COM channel crackled to life. "Blue Leader, come in--"
"Blue Leader here," the Chief said. He could hear screams and arms fire over the channel, as well as a strange kind of sound--almost like an animal's screech. "Sitrep!"
"Under attack by unknown assailants--approximately two meters tall, all claws and teeth, no weapons. Came at us from tunnels--" There was a long burst of gunfire, then Ollie said, "Tunnels, sir! They must be--"
The Chief heard another of the screeches, far closer to Ollie this time, and the line went dead.
The ODSTs around the room were stirring; they must be getting reports from their comrades too. The Chief used his priority code to patch in to the other conversations around him. He was met with a cacophony of screams, shots, and those strange, awful cries.
He shut them off and opened a channel to Reardon. "Sir, permission to return to the Mayberry with reinforcements."
"Granted," was Reardon's reply. He sounded shaken.
He opened a channel to the Pelican's crew. "Delta 421, prepare for immediate departure to the Mayberry," he said. Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he switched channels. "Sergeant Hurd, leave one fireteam here with the Lieutenant and the specialists and get the rest to the Pelican."
Linda and four ODSTs had already crowded into the airlock; as he waited for them to cycle through, he tried to open a channel to Ollie. "Blue Three, report," he said, repeating it several times. It was then he noticed that Ollie's bio status on his HUD was blinking--there was no signal. That meant Ollie's MJOLNIR armor had been damaged...or destroyed.
The Chief opened a general channel to all the UNSC forces near the Mayberry. Again he was assaulted by screams and gunfire. "This is Spartan-117. Reinforcements are on the way. Repeat: we are on our way. Can I get a sitrep?"
"Little busy here, Chief," said a voice--he thought it was Perlman's.
The airlock was done; the Chief got in with three ODSTs and Hurd.
"Can you describe the enemy?" the Chief asked.
"Hold on--" There was a long burst of gunfire. "They're big black bugs, Chief. Hard black skin, like beetles, and their damned acid blood sprays everywhere...you can't get near 'em...hold on..."
"How many?" the Chief asked.
"Dozens, hundreds, thousands...more than I can--no, no! Fall back here! Here, dammit! What are you doing? Chief, you'd better get here fast--"
"We're on our way."
The airlock completed its cycle and the Spartan sprinted down the corridors, the ODSTs close on his heels. "Are there anymore Marines coming?" he asked Hurd.
"This is it," she said.
He opened another channel. "Delta 421, I want you in the air the second we're inside."
They burst out of the door into the dim Acheron twilight. The Pelican was already hovering a meter above the ground; the Spartan leapt into the troop compartment.
As soon as the last ODST was in, he said, "Punch it."
As the Pelican roared into the sky, the Chief checked his assault rifle. He saw Linda looking at him; she nodded, and he nodded back.
Time to do what they did best.
1644 Hours, March 14, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Mayberry, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
The Master Chief had the pilot circle the Mayberry before landing. From the air, everything looked fine. There was no one in sight.
"Take us down," the Chief told the pilot. "Once we're off the ship, return to the derelict but stay ready for immediate extraction."
"Why don't I wait here, sir?" the pilot asked.
"The other Pelican is here," said the Chief. "We can't risk both. If we're attacked and you don't get a call for dustoff, you get the Lieutenant and his team to safety. Understood?"
The pilot nodded. "Yes, sir."
The Spartans and the ODSTs, reluctant allies against an unknown threat, hopped off the hovering Pelican. Once they were all clear, the dropship roared into the sky, kicking up large clouds of dust around them. For a brief, uneasy moment, the troops' vision was completely obscured.
The Master Chief opened a COM channel to Linda. "Blue Two, take a team and check the other Pelican. Sergeant, you and your team are with me."
The Prowler was like a black shark against the gray Acheron sky. The Chief opened a general COM channel. "This is Spartan-117," he said. "We've arrived at the Mayberry. If anyone is receiving this, please respond." There was no answer.
The ramp of the Prowler was pockmarked with dozens of acid burns and splattered with red blood. A dead ODST lay face-down just inside the ramp, blood pooling beneath him.
One of Hurd's troops lifted the dead Marine's head. "Large hole in the forehead," he said. "Doesn't look like a projectile wound, though. Looks like something punched through it."
They moved forward into the bay. The airlock door had been torn open--again. The corridor on the other side was dark.
The Chief took a step toward the airlock--and a nightmare came out.
The thing was humanoid, though somehow it seemed more alien than any Covenant the Master Chief had ever seen. Its skin was shiny and black. The body was slender and covered with ridges and segmented parts. The chest looked more like a bared ribcage than flesh. The arms were long, ending in six-fingered hands--four fingers in the middle and two opposable thumbs on either side. Both the hands and feet ended in long claws.
Four tubes jutted out from its back--the tube they'd found earlier had obviously come from the same sort of creature.
It had an almost biomechanical look--like some great, awful machine built by hell's best engineers. A bony tail almost as long as its body, with a wicked-looking barb at the end, whipped back and forth behind it.
Two large tubes ran in an arc on either side of the head. But the head itself was the real nightmare: it was elongated, nearly a meter in length, and resembled a fat, black insect larva. Ridges, spikes, and segmented tubes ran down the head, which ended in a blank, eyeless face. The only facial feature was a jaw full of silvery, razor-sharp teeth.
The alien moved incredibly fast, but the Spartan's enhanced reflexes were faster. The Chief pulled the trigger and a stream of bullets tore the creature apart. He tried to dodge the blood spray. but a few drops landed on his armor and sizzled. The acid didn't burn too deep, but the fact that it could do any damage at all to the advanced armor plating was incredible.
The thing lay dead at his feet, its blood sizzling through the floor. In moments it had burned through to the circuitry below and began working its way to the hull. The Chief noted that the blood didn't seem to damage the creature's own flesh; apparently the chemical make-up of its skin made it impervious to the corrosive effects of its own blood.
The ODSTs' reaction was to curse in awed voices. "Don't get any on you," the Master Chief said as he stepped over the dead alien.
It looked like there had been a replay of the battle days before--except this time, the humans were better armed and better trained, and the aliens in too much of a hurry to take bodies—at least dead bodies--with them. On their way to the bridge they ran into two more XTs and put them down instantly. Dead ODSTs littered the route.
"We got here in minutes," Hurd said. "How could this happen so fast?"
The bridge, which had been scrubbed clean of blood by the ONI techs, was once again a scene from hell. Human and alien blood was splashed all over the walls; the corpse of an alien had melted through the floor and two decks below.
The Chief knelt to inspect an dead ODST. Like the one on the loading ramp, his helmet and skull had been punctured. "What's the count on casualties?" he asked Hurd.
"There were ten ONI specialists and twenty Marines on duty," said the sergeant. "We've found thirteen bodies, ten of them Marines. And five dead XTs."
They're taking them alive, the Chief thought.
There was a moan from the floor in the corner. The Master Chief and Hurd were across the room in a moment. An ODST was pinned beneath a computer console that had been torn off its mounting. The Chief easily lifted the 600-kilo console; Hurd carefully pulled the soldier out.
"Perlman," said Hurd, relief in her voice. "You son of a bitch. Let's get a medic over here!"
Perlman coughed and raised his head. "Can I take this damned helmet off?"
"No," said the Chief. "They tore open the airlock. Ship's depressurized again."
Perlman let his head drop back to the deck. "Dammit. Feels like I can't breathe."
A medic appeared and began checking him over. "You've got acid burns on your right shoulder and chest," he said. "But they're not too deep. Looks like you have contusions all over though. How do you feel?"
"Like a damned cruiser landed on my ass," he said. "I'm pretty sure that console cracked a rib or two."
"That computer may have saved you," said Hurd. "They didn't leave anyone else alive."
The medic finished his cursory exam and looked up at Hurd. "I'll give him some meds for the pain, but we have to get him down to the infirmary for an exam."
"Perlman," said the Chief, "what happened?"
"They came up out of the ground, sir," said the Marine. "We had hardly any warning. They move so damned fast...they've got this, this second mouth, like a tube, shoots out like a damned piston...they kept killing us that way. Punching through the helmets."
Perlman's eyebrows knitted in concentration. "He stayed outside, to guard the ramp...he killed a lot of 'em, Chief...but the acid. The acid can burn through the armor..."
Hurd gave him a gentle slap on the shoulder. "Good work, Perlman. We'll get you to the infirmary, then you've got a first-class seat on the first Pelican off this rock."
"No--!" Perlman sat up, coughed, and reached for his rifle. "No. I'm fine."
"No damned XT acid-bleeding bastards are going to smoke my team and not pay for it," said Perlman. He checked the LED counter on the rifle and cursed. "Empty," he muttered, tossing it aside.
One of the ODSTs pulled a shotgun from his pack and tossed it to Perlman. "That's more like it," he growled.
"No," said Hurd. "You're not going anywhere until the medic's had a chance to examine you in the infirmary. That's an order, Marine."
The Master Chief turned away from them and opened a channel to Linda. "Blue Two, report."
"Bravo 304 secure, sir," said Linda. "No sign of the crew or arms fire."
"Understood. Blue Three is MIA. Your orders are to close up the Pelican and get back to the Mayberry. Watch the ground--that's where they attacked from before."
The Chief closed the COM channel and opened an encrypted one to Reardon.
"What's the status, Chief?" the Lieutenant asked.
"Heavy casualties here, sir," said the Chief. "Only one ODST survivor found. Eleven troops and three specialists KIA. The other seventeen are MIA. I believe they've been captured by the XTs. The survivor says they attacked from underground."
"Any viable specimens?"
The Chief frowned. "Negative." He hesitated, considering his next words carefully. "I'm going to secure the Mayberry and the other Pelican."
"All right, but don't be too long about it," said Reardon.
One of the Marines was working at the communications panel. "Any luck raising the Tyger?" the Chief said.
The ODST shook her head. "They're not answering. And I'm pretty sure this thing is working."
The Chief turned to Hurd. "Sergeant, leave a team here to secure the ship."
"Where are we going?"
The Master Chief hefted his rifle. "After them."
After he'd been patched up in the Prowler's infirmary--a brace fitted around his torso to hold his ribs steady and biofoam injected into his ribcage to stem any internal bleeding--Perlman showed them where the aliens had first attacked. The Chief, Hurd and five more ODSTs followed him. Linda was back on the Mayberry with the remaining Marines.
There were a number of small holes in the area, though many had collapsed, leaving a small funnel of gray dust. Gazing at a funnel, the Master Chief recalled a biology lesson from his early schooling as a Spartan. Their AI instructor, Déjà, had told them about an insect called the antlion, whose larvae dug shallow pits in the sand to trap any insect prey that stumbled into them. The prey would struggle to climb out but the sandy walls would crumble beneath them, sending them inexorably toward the antlion's ferocious jaws.
He turned away and sought out one of the open holes. Bending down, he shined his rifle's flashlight into the darkness. "Only goes down about a meter or so," he said.
"Hold on," said one of the ODSTs--a woman named Bowr, according to his HUD. Bowr brought out a small spherical device that the Chief recognized as a resonance mapper. It would emit a sonic pulse that would--hopefully--bounce throughout the tunnels, giving them an idea of how far the catacombs extended.
Bowr dropped the mapper into the tunnel, checked its position, then hit a switch on the remote in her hand. The ground vibrated beneath their feet.
"Got it," said Bowr. "Rendering the map now. Give me a minute." The ODST worked the remote. "I'll upload it through the COM channel."
The Master Chief activated the file on his HUD. A green, glowing three-dimensional map suddenly floated before his vision, complete with landmarks (such as the Mayberry and the alien derelict) and directional indicators. The map was a spider web of tunnels running in many directions, but focused near the UNSC and alien vessels.
"There's no way those are natural tunnels," said Hurd. "They must be digging them."
The Master Chief had noticed something else. "They all start at the Derelict," he said. Specifically, he realized, at the egg chamber beneath the cockpit.
He opened a private channel to Reardon. "Spartan-117 to LT."
"What is it, Chief?" Reardon said. The line was scratchy.
"Sir, we think the XTs may be moving through tunnels beneath--"
"Say again, Master Chief!" Reardon's voice was almost obscured by static.
The Chief raised his voice. "The XTs are beneath the derelict. Over."
There was no answer.
"Sir?" the Chief repeated. His only response was static.
He opened a channel to Hurd. "Sergeant, see if you can raise the LT."
Hurd didn't answer--she didn't even look at him. Puzzled, he activated a general proximity COM channel. "Sergeant?"
Still no response. Slightly annoyed, the Chief tapped Hurd on the shoulder. She turned, startled, and faced him. "Sergeant?" he said again over the COM channel. When she didn't respond, he made a hand gesture toward his helmet to inquire whether her COM was working.
She paused a moment, then shook her head. With a shrug, the Master Chief gestured that they would have to use hand signals for the time being. He ordered them to return to the Mayberry to figure out what was going on.
But the answer to the puzzle came just a moment later. One of the ODSTs began to gesture wildly, pointing at the sky.
A small vessel, its purple hull gleaming in the twilight, was headed straight for the Mayberry. Like the derelict, it was roughly shaped like a U, but this time the ship was very, very familiar.
It was a Covenant dropship.
Age of Reclamation, Eighteenth Cycle, Unit 93 (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Aboard Covenant Spirit above surface of moon Acheron (human designation)
Special Operations Major Orn 'Ptomelee stood at the side of his commander, Spec Ops Officer Xiven 'Ustamee. Xiven was busily directing the pilot. Jamming the humans' transmissions had been surprisingly easy; it seemed not all humans had caught on to this trick yet. It suggested a regrettable lack of coordination on the part of the enemy, though Orn knew such lapses were not unknown even within the Sangheili ranks.
Xiven ordered the pilot to swing the Spirit above the smaller human vessel, a dropship, then ordered the Minor-Domo at the Ops station to open fire. Within moments, the barrage of plasma energy caused the unprotected vessel to burst into flames, then explode. The Kig-Yar, still strapped in their seats in the troop compartment, crowed with glee at the destruction. Orn hissed at them to be silent. The Unggoy remained quiet and furtive, as usual.
"There were no humans aboard the dropship," Xiven said to Orn. "But we believe there may be some on the other vessel."
"Shall we destroy it as well?" suggested Orn.
"No. We are to board it and kill all resistance."
Orn was puzzled, but he never questioned his leader. Xiven began giving orders to land the Spirit.
They had barely managed to slip out undetected from their cruiser, the Resolute Vindicator, once it had engaged the human vessel. There had been two dropships, theirs and another filled with basic ground troops, but the humans' fighters had destroyed the other dropship before it could get out of range. Only Xiven's expert navigation had saved the Spec Ops soldiers from a similar fate.
Orn knew very little of their mission. All he had been told was that the humans had been detected operating in this system and they were to neutralize the threat. That in itself was odd. This system was usually forbidden to Covenant ships because it was known to be visited by the hated Tusked Ones, an aggressive alien race who had been able to resist the Covenant's attempts to assimilate them for hundreds of years.
Xiven had hinted that the High Council knew of something important in the system, something they didn't want the humans getting their hands on. Whatever it was, it was apparently worth risking a skirmish (or even a war) with the Tusked Ones.
"Bring us to a hover here," Xiven ordered the pilot, pointing to an area near the black human vessel--the one the humans referred to as a "Prowler." As a Spec Ops soldier, Orn was aware that the black ships were used by their counterparts in the human military. Whatever the humans were doing here, it was intended to be secret.
"Sub-Commander," said one of the pilots to Xiven, "we are detecting the source of the second transmission. It appears to be coming from a crashed vessel to the northwest. The computer's analysis of the message says it's in the Mala'kak language."
Orn couldn't hide his surprise. The Mala'kak had once been a powerful race in this part of the galaxy. They may even have been a rival to the Forerunners, the ancient ancestral race whom the Covenant worshipped like gods. But, like the Forerunners, the Mala'kak had disappeared thousands of years ago--or so the Covenant thought.
"It isn't a distress signal, Sub-Commander. It is a warning."
"Understood," said Xiven. "What of the humans?"
"We are picking up communication activity from the Mala'kak vessel. There may be humans inside the ship. There was also communication near the black human vessel, but nothing right now."
The Spirit hovered a few meters above the ground next to the black vessel. The dropship hadn't been designed for surface landings, so Covenant troops had to leap from the ship to the ground.
Orn began shouting orders to the Kig-Yar and the Unggoy, getting them up out of their restraints and making sure they had secured their weapons. The Unngoy, whom the humans called "Grunts," were squat creatures, a mere one-and-a-half meters tall compared to the Sangheili's average height of three meters. They were roughly humanoid, with pebbled purple-gray skin, clawed hands, and stumpy feet. They wore red or orange armor, depending on rank, that rose in a triangular peak off their backs and housed their rebreather system (the race came from a methane-rich planet and required special masks to survive in other environments).
The Unggoy were arguably the backbone of the Covenant; they did most of the hard labor, as well as serving as the front line--i.e., cannon fodder--in combat. Most of the Covenant races looked down on the Unggoy, but Orn, like many Sangheili (whom the humans referred to as "Elites"), felt a certain amount of respect for the creatures. They were cowardly and lazy, true, but he had seen them slaughtered in droves while their Sangheili commanders watched from a distance.
The Unggoy hated their fellow passengers, the Kig-Yar, whom the humans called Jackals. Thin and birdlike, with a mouthful of tiny, razor-sharp teeth, the Kig-Yar were disliked by all other Covenant races (except perhaps the upstart Jiralhanae, with whom they shared a love of destruction and chaos). Though by all rights the Kig-Yar were of the same caste as the Unggoy, they considered themselves superior and treated the Unggoy with contempt. As a race, the Kig-Yar cared little for the Covenant and the Great Journey; the payment they received from the High Council and their own piratical activities was their true faith. Unlike the Unggoy, Kig-Yar infantry carried small, round energy shields that could withstand a barrage of plasma or projectile fire. Kig-Yar were often used as snipers--a dishonorable, cowardly role they were particularly adept at.
They had ten Unggoy, five Kig-Yar, and the six Sangheili--himself, Xiven, two Minor-Domos named Tul and Grun, and the pilot and gunner. The latter four wore the shining blue armor of their rank, while Orn's was a deep purple and Xiven's was black. Sangheili were far taller and larger than the Unggoy or the Kig-Yar (though the Lekgolo and Jiralhanae were larger). They had rough grayish-black skin and a vaguely humanoid shape, with two legs, two arms and a long neck that hung forward, giving them a hunched look. They had small black eyes on either side of their head, just above the four sharp-toothed mandibles of their mouths; when their mouths were fully opened they resembled a blossoming flower.
The Sangheili's knees were inverted, bending the opposite direction from a human's, giving them a loping walk but allowing them to run at great speeds. Their legs ended in two-toed hooves, which were nonetheless protected by boots. Their hands had two fingers and two opposable thumbs, one on each side.
Unlike either of the lower races, all the Sangheili were equipped with personal energy shields that protected their entire bodies, while Orn and Xiven also had personal cloaking shields that could render them invisible. All of them wore small rebreathers over their mouths, but otherwise their flesh would be exposed to the harsh Acheron winds.
The long curved doors, which ran the length of the ship horizontally, began to open on either side. With little urging from Orn--other than the sight of his glowing plasma sword--the Kig-Yar and the Unggoy leaped to the gray ground below. Orn followed them, and then, with a few final barked orders to the Minor-Domos, Xiven landed on the dirt.
Once he had landed, the Spirit pulled away and flew a half-kilometer to the south, where Xiven had ordered them to wait until they heard from him. If any humans were spotted, the Minor-Domos were to take the ship into orbit.
The Covenant immediately fanned out in a defensive formation, searching for hostile contacts. Xiven activated his invisibility shield; he would remain hidden for protection, while Orn would issue his orders to the troops.
"No sign of the humans," said Orn over the battlenet.
"Agreed," said Xiven. "They may be inside the black vessel. Send Tul in with a squad of Unggoy and Kig-Yar. We will wait here."
"Should I not accompany them?" said Orn.
"No," said Xiven. "Something does not seem right to me. We will remain here."
"Yes, Sub-Commander," said Orn. He ordered Tul to take five Unggoy and three Kig-Yar and secure the human vessel. Tul herded the troops toward the loading ramp. The Unggoy moved in first, tentatively, clutching their plasma pistols. The Kig-Yar began to snarl and hiss, pushing the hapless Unggoy ahead of them.
Tul and the other Minor-Domo, Grun, chuckled, but Orn felt the mandibles of his jaw grind together. Kig-Yar were such despicable creatures.
Minor-Domo Raz 'Lytanee's hands twitched over the controls of his Ops console. On his monitor he could see Major Orn and the other Covenant troops nearing the human vessel.
For the tenth time that day, he regretted his decision to join the naval arm of the Covenant military instead of the infantry. Raz's father had been the sub-commander of a scout ship, a respectable position, but one without much chance for combat or glory. He had died in insignificant fashion when his ship was destroyed during a battle with the humans.
To honor his father, Raz had joined the naval forces, but he was beginning to realize he had chosen a path that might lead him to the same end as his father. He wanted to cover himself in glory--and human blood.
He said as much to the pilot, Tryg 'Yustatee. Tryg, who had heard this from Raz many times, told him to shut up. They would see action soon enough, and there was always honor in doing one's duty. Raz reflected on this, his mandibles flexing thoughtfully.
He was still ruminating when a rocket hit the back of the ship.
It so surprised Raz, he had only started to reach for the gunner controls when the second rocket hit, ripping a hole in the Spirit and killing him instantly.
By then Tryg had grasped the situation and was trying to get the Spirit into the air. The dropship had just started to rise when a black-gloved hand appeared over the edge of the ragged new hole in the hull. As Tryg watched in horror, an extraordinarily large human--clad entirely in green armor--hauled itself up into the dropship.
Tryg grabbed his plasma rifle as the human sent a stream of bullets in his direction. The cockpit was tiny and there was nowhere to run or hide, so the Sangheili bellowed a war cry and charged.
Seconds later his body was sliding to the floor, riddled with bullets.
Orn stood outside the human vessel and waited. On the orders of Xiven, he and the remaining troops had moved back, and Orn had activated his camouflage. The Kig-Yar and Unggoy milled in front of him, the Unggoy mewling nervously while the Kig-Yar hissed and argued with one another. Grun hefted his plasma rifle impatiently.
"Where are the humans?" Orn asked his commander over the battlenet. "We detected at least eight when we jammed their communications."
"They may have abandoned the vessel," said Xiven. "If that is the case, we wi--"
There was a burst of light, a wave of intense heat, and Orn felt himself flying through the air.
It was less than a minute before he came to his senses, though for all the Spec Ops Major knew, it could have been hours. He stood, balancing himself unsteadily on his hooves, and looked around.
The human vessel was gone--completely gone. In its place was a pile of flaming wreckage.
The humans had destroyed their vessel rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Of course! It was an obvious strategy, and one worthy of the Sangheili. They had been fools to send in a boarding crew, especially since they had alerted the humans by jamming their communications.
Orn checked his belt; his plasma rifle was gone, but the hilt of his energy sword was still secure. It ignited with a hiss, the twin prongs of the blade glowing purple-white in the Acheron evening. He turned off the weapon and put it back in his belt.
The explosion had thrown him nearly thirty meters from the human ship. Fortunately, his energy shield had protected him from the blast's flames. He went back to the ship to look for survivors. The Unggoy he had been standing with had been immolated by the explosion. Only two of the Kig-Yar had survived, thanks to lucky positioning of their plasma shields when the ship had exploded.
Grun, the other Minor-Domo, appeared at Orn's side. Somehow he had managed to hold on to his plasma rifle.
"Take the Kig-Yar and secure this area," Orn ordered him. Grun growled an affirmative and moved away.
Orn opened the battlenet. "Sub-Commander?" he said.
"Here," said Xiven. The words were spoken aloud, and Orn turned to see his commander lying on the ground nearby. Both his shield and camouflage had been shorted out by the explosion. He reached out a hand and Orn hauled him to his feet.
The commander had been severely injured. The left half of his body was darkened with burns and blood seeped from a large wound in his side.
Orn opened a channel to the dropship. "This is Major Orn requesting immediate retrieval." There was no response. He repeated the request, but the line remained silent.
"Too late," Xiven muttered. "It is my fault. The humans were ready for us." He looked up at Orn. "They will be here soon. You know your duty."
"I need a weapon," Xiven said.
"Do you want my sword?" Orn asked.
Xiven shook his head. "I am too weak."
Orn searched the area and found a few plasma pistols that had belonged to the unfortunate Unggoy. Most of them had been turned to charred blobs of metal by the explosion, but he found one in working order.
Xiven took it from him. "Thank you, Major. If you survive, I have logged in the battlenet my desire that you be given my position."
Orn bowed. "I am honored, Sub-Commander."
Grun returned with the limping Kig-Yar. "No sign of the humans," he said, "but we did find many of these strange things. They seem to be body parts, but I do not think they are human." He handed what appeared to be a humanoid forearm to Orn.
It was black, and the skin hard and shiny. Puzzled, Orn showed it to Xiven. The Sub-Commander's eyes widened. "The kilenchae," he murmured.
He looked at Orn. "I must give you new orders," he said over a private channel. "You must not let the humans leave this moon. Do whatever is necessary to stop them. Then, you must find a way to contact the Resolute Vindicator--or, if it has been destroyed, another Covenant ship--and request immediate cleansing of entire site."
Orn knew what that meant. Xiven wanted the Covenant to carpet the area with plasma weapons, wiping everything--even geographical features--off the moon's surface.
"It will be done, Sub-Commander. But why?"
"These creatures--we know of them. They were once used to conquer half the galaxy. The humans must not be allowed to study them. Kill the humans and destroy the Mala'kak ship. But even more important, Major--do not let the creatures off this moon. They are more dangerous to us than the entire human empire. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sub-Commander," said Orn.
"Find their queen," he said. "She will be in the derelict. Find her and destroy her." He coughed, spattering purple blood on his forearm. "Leave me. I will continue trying to contact the Vindicator."
And die, thought Orn. The Sub-Commander was already breathing heavily. He would soon succumb to his wounds.
Orn bowed again, then said, "Though you leave this world, you will come on the Great Journey when the time comes. Die with honor."
"Die with honor," Xiven replied over the private channel. "Go. Find the humans."
Age of Reclamation, Eighteenth Cycle, Unit 93 (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Surface of moon Acheron (human designation)
Orn's first move was to ascertain the status of their dropship. After a brief hike to the south, with Grun and the two Kig-Yar in tow, the Spec Ops Major was not surprised to find the ship was gone.
There was no wreckage, however. They did find some glass shards and spent shell casings of human weaponry, but no evidence of what had happened to the Spirit or its crew. Troubled, Orn again attempted to contact the dropship, to no avail.
"Where shall we go now, Major?" asked Grun, fiddling impatiently with his rifle. The Minor-Domo was clearly on edge; young and inexperienced, he had fought in only a few battles, and now he had lost a commander and nearly been killed in an explosion. Orn knew it would take only the smallest push to send Grun over the edge and into a mindless rage.
It was a common trait among their race; when pushed beyond their physical limits or when facing imminent death, the Sangheili underwent a physiological transformation that increased their strength by half and doubled their ferocity, but dimmed their higher mental functions almost to nil. Essentially, they went berserk. It had evolved as a method of survival on the Sangheili homeworld millions of years earlier, when one fought with only hands and hooves. But in an age where projectile weapons required advanced tactics and cool minds, many a cornered Sangheili warrior had charged blindly into battle only to be cut down by an enemy firing from cover.
Higher-ranking Sangheili troops such as Orn received special training to suppress the berserker instinct, but Minor-Domos were notorious for losing control. Orn's best chance at keeping Grun calm was to take firm control of the situation. "While the humans may have environment suits, they would not have enough oxygen to survive very long outside, especially now that they have destroyed their own ship. We must assume they have taken shelter in the Mala'kak derelict. We will reconnoiter the derelict and search for a way to defeat the humans.
"You will be in command of the Kig-Yar. Be sure they do not give away our position with their chatter."
"Yes, Major," said Grun.
As the Minor-Domo went to brief the Kig-Yar, Orn took stock of their situation. He had a plasma sword and Grun had a plasma rifle; both were almost fully charged. Each of the Kig-Yar had a plasma pistol, and all of them had two plasma grenades each. When thrown, the grenades turned bright blue as they secreted a special phosphorescent gel which could stick to the surface of any target. If a grenade happened to land on a target's skin, the pain was excruciating--for the few brief seconds before the unfortunate victim exploded.
Aside from Grun's plasma rifle, the grenades were their best weapons. Orn's sword was lethal in close quarters, but he would have to get past the humans' firepower first. He considered swapping the sword with Grun's rifle, but decided that would only encourage the Minor-Domo to charge mindlessly into close combat.
Efficient grenade use was their best bet. They would go to the derelict, locate the humans, and set up traps with the grenades. Failing that, they would simply kill as many humans as possible.
Orn decided to scout ahead of Grun and the Kig-Yar, using his invisibility shield to help protect him from human ambushes. He was unsure whether the moon's harsh, dusty winds would make him more or less visible to human eyes, but he was willing to take the risk. It would have been easy to order the others to lead the way, but even with the ingrained Covenant respect for the chain of command, Orn wasn't sure how much he could rely on the unsteady Grun or the feckless Kig-Yar.
As they made their way to the Mala'kak derelict, Orn reflected on what Xiven had told him. He had never heard of the kilenchae and wondered how Xiven knew of them. Whatever the explanation, Orn was uncomfortable with how little intel he had to go on. How did one fight these kilenchae? What was the terrible threat in allowing the humans to study them?
These were far too many questions for a Special Operations operative, who was accustomed to knowing more than everyone else. Xiven had laid a great duty at Orn's feet--he must both eliminate the humans and prevent the kilenchae from leaving the moon. Yet he had few weapons and troops, and no idea when—or even if--the Resolute Vindicator would return.
Orn put these doubts aside; such anxiety could weaken his mind's ability to deal with his immediate task, which was to locate and kill the humans.
As they rounded a low bluff, the Mala'kak derelict came into view. It was huge, the size of a Covenant cruiser, though its configuration was odd and, to Orn, unpleasant to look at. At this distance, there were no signs of human presence.
Orn opened a battlenet channel and ordered Grun and the Kig-Yar to remain at the bottom of the bluff. He then hopped down the three meter cliff and moved in for a closer look at the vessel.
There was a large hole in the side of the ship. As he neared it, Orn began to notice faint imprints of human spoor in the gray dirt. He quickly estimated that at least twenty and perhaps as many as thirty humans had passed this way. There seemed to be three types of boot-prints, but what concerned him the most was the appearance of a particularly large track--almost the size of a Sangheili hoof, and far larger than the average human boot.
Orn stopped to think. He had heard the stories about the elite human warriors that some in the Covenant had taken to calling "demons." They wore green armor and had defeated significantly larger Covenant forces on many occasions. From his inspection of the tracks, the Spec Ops Major thought there might be at least two such warriors here. If they were still alive, his mission had just become far more difficult.
He drew a small device from his pack, a metal cylinder about seven centimeters long with a single switch along the side. The device was small enough that his invisibility field was able to encompass it, so spying humans wouldn't see a cylinder floating in mid-air.
Orn began waving the device to the left and right in front of him in long, low arcs. He walked slowly toward the hole, swinging the device left and right. Just before he reached the hole, it vibrated silently in his hand.
He stopped immediately. Lowering himself to the ground, he waved the tool a few more times, isolating the exact spot where it began to vibrate.
There. A mine. That made it very likely the humans were inside the derelict--unless they had rigged it to explode, as they had the black vessel. But if what Xiven had said was true and the derelict and the kilenchae were that important, Orn thought it unlikely the humans would detonate the Mala'kak ship unless a far larger Covenant force appeared.
Orn had been well-trained in the use of human weaponry, and that extended to explosives. He took a toolkit from his pack and disarmed the mine, then policed it for later use. The humans had given him an extra weapon.
He scanned the rest of the area near the hole with the cylinder and found no more mines. Putting the device away, he took a moment to examine the hole.
The humans were almost certainly preparing an ambush--perhaps on the other side. There could be as many as two dozen fully-armed human warriors waiting for them, including the green elites. He had only one Sangheili and two slightly wounded Kig-Yar.
They could try throwing grenades to the right and left within the door, killing or at least drawing out any humans hiding within. But that plan was reckless, risky, and could be a waste of grenades.
There was really only one option. He opened a channel to Grun. "This is Major Orn. I am going to enter the derelict under camouflage and assess the tactical situation. Remain there until I return."
He waited, but there was no response from Grun. "Confirm, Minor-Domo," he ordered. The channel was silent.
The Sangheili felt a cold rush of anxiety pulse through his veins. Turning, he started a loping run toward the bluff where he'd left his squad. Reaching it in moments, he found no one in sight.
Orn cursed. Grun and the worthless Kig-Yar had deserted--deserted on this forsaken moon! It was madness. Orn had intended to use the humans' oxygen supply to refill their rebreathers. Without a refill, Grun and the Kig-Yar would asphyxiate within hours.
Cursing again, Orn turned back toward the derelict. He still had his duty...
Then he noticed the tracks in the gray dirt. Fresh tracks. There were the hoofprints of Grun and the slender prints of the Kig-Yar, yes, but there were also dozens of other prints.
He squatted to inspect them more closely. They were narrow and scratchy, and looked as if whatever had made them had been moving very quickly. He followed one particularly clean track for a few meters, where they ended at a hole about a meter wide. Puzzled, Orn turned to look back at the derelict.
Then the ground seemed to explode from below. Black forms came scrambling out. The kilenchae had been waiting for him.
He pulled the plasma sword from his belt and ignited it. Plasma energy formed two parallel blades that extended a half-meter from either side of his hand, tapering to a split edge and contained by magnetic fields generated from the hilt.
The first kilenchae hurtled toward him with an unearthly screech. He sidestepped and brought down the sword, slicing off the front of the thing's elongated head. Its momentum carried it into the dirt, but he had already turned to face the next creature.
Orn counted six or seven of the things, but they moved so fast it seemed like there were dozens. He didn't bother to speak words of challenge or defiance. He simply attacked and defended. Some of the creatures' blood splashed on his armor--he was shocked by the way it hissed and bubbled--but fortunately, the plasma sword instantly cauterized most of the wounds he inflicted.
More kilenchae were pouring out of the holes like insects from a hive. Orn glanced down and noted his sword had already lost a third of its charge.
With an ear-splitting screech, the kilenchae attacked as one.
0240 Hours, March 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
Lieutenant Reardon was as angry as he had ever been.
He didn't yell. That wasn't his style. Instead, he simply stood before the Spartan, looking up through at the impenetrable gold visor.
"Unfortunately," he said through gritted teeth, "I know there's no way they'd ever court-martial a Spartan. "
"Permission to speak freely, sir," said the Master Chief, still standing at attention, looking straight ahead.
"Denied," said Reardon. "I'm sure you were about to point out that—technically--you didn't disobey any of my orders. And probably you'd also say that—technically--you were simply doing your duty to protect the troops.
"Well, I don't give a grunt's ass about that. You destroyed an ONI vessel with invaluable information about the xenomorphs. And for what? A few Covenant troops. And you didn't even get them all, and so now we have to waste valuable manpower guarding the entrance. Who knows what those Covenant will do now that you've pissed them off?"
"Sir," said Hurd. Like everyone else in the cockpit, she had been pointedly trying to ignore the Lieutenant's dressing-down of the Master Chief. There were a half-dozen specialists and three ODSTs in the room (including Perlman), and everyone seemed uncomfortable.
"The Spartans did capture the Covenant dropship before they could send for reinforcements," Hurd said. "With a few hours' worth of repair work, we'll have two spaceworthy ships."
Reardon glared at her, angered by her interruption. Then he looked away. When he looked back, his voice was calm. "What's done is done." He turned to the Spartan. "We'll deal with this matter once we're back on the Tyger."
The Master Chief looked down at Reardon. The public reprimand smarted more than he would ever let on, but there were far more important things to deal with than his pride at the moment. "Sir, we have to get off this moon ASAP. That dropship had to come from a Covenant cruiser, which may have destroyed the Tyger. And we believe the XTs' nest may be directly below our feet."
"All well and good, Chief, but as you may recall, you just blew up the only ship we had with a working Slipspace drive."
"The drive had been sabotaged, sir," said the Chief. "It was inoperable and would have taken days to repair. We may not have that much time. We may not have any time. I recommend we take as much equipment as possible, load it into the Pelican and the Covenant dropship, and get into orbit. We can probably hide in an asteroid cluster until the UNSC can send another ship."
"If they send another ship," Reardon muttered. He walked over to the stasis pod that rested against the wall of the derelict cockpit. They had taken it and its unfortunate occupant off the Mayberry before destroying the ship with ten LOTUS antitank mines. Fortunately, the pod had a built-in fusion generator that could power it for weeks.
After regarding the pod for a moment, Reardon said, "You're right, Chief. Let's get those dropships prepped and ready for launch."
"One more thing, sir," said the Master Chief. "I'd like permission to go after the captured Marines."
The room was silent for a moment. Everyone looked at the Lieutenant.
"Permission denied," said Reardon.
"Sir," said the Chief, "they're probably right below us. Spartan-058 and I can go alone and--"
"Spartan-058 is watching the entrance for Covenant forces," said Reardon. "The answer is no. They're gone, Chief. Besides," he said, with a glance at Perlman, "you didn't seem so eager to rescue the ODST that went missing a few hours ago. I guess it's different when it's a Spartan, eh, Chief? Can't afford to lose one of those."
The Chief tried to ignore the jibe. As a Spartan, he'd had very little experience with military politics; the most important skills in his missions were speed, accuracy, watching lines of fire...anything but diplomacy. "Sir," said the Chief, "as you'll recall, I requested permission to go after Private Tolmie. That permission was denied."
Without waiting for a response--he couldn't afford to get into the blame game with Reardon--the Chief pointed to the stasis pod and said, "And what about him? He's still alive. These creatures seem to feed off humans, like a parasite on a host. If we get to them in time, we can remove the parasites before they do any permanent damage."
Hurd and Perlman came over to stand next to the Spartan. "Sir," said Hurd, "with all due respect, I agree with the Master Chief. It'll take at least three hours to repair the Covenant dropship and load both ships. If there's a chance my men are alive, I want to go after them."
"Listen to me, all of you," said Reardon. "They're gone. That man--" he pointed to the stasis pod, "--cannot be saved. Killing him now would be a mercy, but unfortunately, we need him alive."
"Why?" said Hurd.
Reardon was quiet a moment, considering. Then he pulled the Chief and Hurd aside and activated a private COM channel. "What I'm about to tell you is classified, but if it will stop you from running on a fool's errand...the larvae don't feed on the host, Chief. At least, not in the sense you're thinking."
Reardon led them to one of the UNSC consoles at the far side of the cockpit and tapped at the controls.
"Two months ago, a passing ONI Prowler picked up the weak distress signal emanating from Acheron. They did a quick flyover, found this ship, and quickly returned to Earth to report their findings. Four weeks ago ONI sent the Mayberry with a crew of ten scientists, two officers, and a single fire team of ODSTs to investigate the vessel. The leader of the mission was Dr. Doss Gheng, an ONI biologist.
"They investigated the derelict began examining its databanks. Initially two of their members were infected by larvae. They were brought back to the Prowler for study.
"Before they understood what was going on, one of the XTs hatched and escaped. The other victim they put in stasis," said Reardon, pointing to the stasis pod in the corner.
"What do you mean, 'hatched'?" said the Chief.
Reardon held up a finger for silence. "The leader of the expedition, Dr. Doss Gheng, realized the significance of the XTs. He transmitted his findings to ONI." Reardon had called up an audio log on the console. "As for your question, Chief...this is from Gheng's report summary."
An older man's voice came over the encrypted COM channel. He sounded exhausted, but there was a tinge of excitement in his voice.
"The action of the xenomorphs' reproductive cycle is unprecedented in such a large organism. The larvae--some of the more morbid scientists have taken to calling them 'facehuggers'--latch on to the victim's face and secure themselves with an incredible grip. The larva's blood is highly corrosive, able to leave marks on Titanium-A plating, so I suspect it is nearly impossible to cut or tear the larvae off without killing the patient.
"Upon contact with the victim, the larva thrusts a slender tube down the victim's throat and injects what is best described as a viral agent into the tissues of the lower throat. In an incredibly short amount of time, this viral agent rewrites the victim's DNA, giving it new orders to create an embryo in the victim's chest cavity using cells from nearby tissues.
"This parasitoid grows within the victim's chest of a matter of hours, feeding on its blood and tissues. Within six hours, the larva, having fulfilled its function, drops off the victim and dies. At this point, the victim revives--as occurred in the case of our unfortunate patient, Anton Brell. Some of us have theorized that the reason the victim is allowed to recover is so that he or she can return to his society and, presumably, offer the xenomorphs more opportunities for infection and reproduction.
"Unfortunately, due to the complex nature and incredibly rapid speed of the impregnation, we were unable to detect the presence of the xenomorph in Brell until it was too late. At 0450 hours on February 24, Brell began to scream and thrash in his bed. His colleagues alerted the resident medic, who arrived in time to see..." Gheng's voice hesitated, "...to see the xenomorph erupt from Brell's chest. Brell died instantly. The xenomorph escaped and we believe is still somewhere on the Mayberry. Corporal Tan and his fellow Marines are searching the ship for it now."
There was a pause, followed by a quiet murmur of discussion. Then Gheng's voice continued. "At that time we placed the second victim, Piers Batelli, in stasis to prevent the release of a second xenomorph. It is our hope that, with enough study, he can be saved at a UNSC medical center."
Reardon shut off the log. "It appears the escaped XT killed or captured one of the ODSTs. Within hours the crew was attacked by two XTs, who got four more people, including Gheng. Everyone remaining holed up on the Mayberry and...well, you saw what happened on the Mayberry's video log. The XTs attacked again and overwhelmed them."
Hurd was cursing softly to herself. "It burst through his chest--?"
"Yes," said Reardon. "But those people died to give us the information we need to defeat the Covenant."
"How?" said the Master Chief.
"We've managed to translate some of the data from the derelict," said Reardon. "It's patchy, and there are a lot of gaps, but from what we can determine, those aliens--" he pointed to the Pilot, whose enormous corpse lay under a green tarp in the corner of the room, "--created the XTs, the xenomorphs, as a bioweapon against their enemies. They genetically engineered them to be the ultimate killer organism. By combining their DNA with that of the enemy hosts, the xenomorphs can adapt to whatever environment the enemy is native to. Then they can spread throughout the victim's population with lightning speed...an enemy planet could fall within weeks.
"This ship was meant to deliver a payload of eggs to an enemy planet a thousand years ago. From the description, we think those enemies might have been the Elites. But one of the larvae escaped and infected the Pilot."
"The distress signal," said the Chief absently, remembering a comment Ollie had made.
"It isn't a distress signal, is it? It's a warning. The Pilot crashed the ship here deliberately, to keep the XTs from spreading to his own people." Before Reardon could answer, he went on, "And the Mayberry's Slipspace drive...it was sabotaged by one of the crew. Someone did it to keep them here, didn't they? That person knew how dangerous these things were--too dangerous to be taken back to Earth."
Hurd, realization dawning on her face, looked at the stasis pod, then back at Reardon. "Was it him?" she said. "Was he the one that sabotaged then engine? You said both men were infected at the same time, but Brell had been out of the infirmary for hours when he died. Why does Batelli still have one of those things on his face?"
"That's enough!" Reardon barked. He then said, more calmly, "You're being paranoid. I've told you why there's no point in going after your men. Now let's get the dropships prepped and loaded and get off this rock."
"With the stasis pod?" said Hurd.
"Yes," said Reardon firmly. "You both know the UNSC is outnumbered and outgunned by the Covenant. It's just a matter of time before they find Earth and destroy us once and for all. This may give us the edge we need to survive. Now let's get going."
Despite his misgivings, the Master Chief followed Reardon's orders. And the lieutenant was probably right about the captured troops. Gheng's report had said the larvae completed impregnation within six hours...it had already been eight since the attack. Even if they found the troops, they'd be too late to offer anything but a quick death. He had to weigh that against the lives of the survivors.
Still, the thought of Ollie somewhere, in the dark, a horrid thing gestating in his chest...it was almost too much to bear, and the Master Chief found himself distracted as he and Linda helped the techs load the Pelican.
There had been no sign of the Covenant since the Spartans' attack on the Covenant dropship and the detonation of the Mayberry. Both had been quick decisions by the Chief. He'd sent the human forces back on Delta 421 immediately. Once the Covenant dropship had landed, he'd sent Linda to try and capture or destroy it while he entered the Mayberry and equipped the ten LOTUS land mines. He'd made it out an airlock even as the Covenant were coming up the ramp. It was a desperate plan, one that carried the risk of being stranded on the planet, but with any luck it would take out all the Covenant troops and forestall the arrival of a larger force.
But he hadn't had time to stick around to find out whether the explosion had gotten them all. He'd run back to the Derelict and Linda had picked him up in the Covenant dropship on the way. They'd hidden the dropship behind the Derelict, where technicians were now working furiously to repair the ship enough to make it spaceworthy.
Linda had taken the news that they were abandoning Ollie with her typical stoicism, but of course her face was impossible to see behind the helmet. They'd had to leave Spartans behind before--John's best friend, Sam, had been critically wounded on one of their earliest missions, and had died in an explosion while covering their escape. But that had been a quick death. Nothing like what Ollie could be going through.
The Master Chief tried to push the thoughts aside as he placed another computer console into the Pelican's cargo attachment. All of the equipment was to be loaded into Delta 421, along with Reardon and the remaining ONI scientists; the ODSTs, technicians and Spartans would take their chances with the Covenant dropship. It gave the technicians an extra incentive to ensure the captured ship was well-sealed.
But none of it reassured the Chief. At any moment the xenomorphs could attack. There was no pattern to their attacks and no sure way of dealing with them. From the Chief's perspective, the xenomorphs had soundly defeated the UNSC forces in every encounter so far.
Maybe Reardon was right. Maybe the aliens could be the ultimate weapon against the Covenant. But something about the spook's argument seemed to ring false to the Chief. And there was something else...
The eggs. There was no way all those eggs could last, wet and fresh, for thousands of years. A lot of the eggs, the ones farther back, had been rotten or even fossilized. So where had the new eggs come from...?
The Chief thought about it as he made his way back to the Pilot's chamber. Linda and the ODSTs had already removed the last of the supplies. At Reardon's insistence, they were leaving behind the plastic airlocks and other camp equipment for any ONI teams that might follow them.
The Chief walked down the corridor alone. His motion tracker remained blue and empty. The corridor was lit by a number of UNSC lamps, but the Chief felt as uneasy as if he were in complete darkness. He pulled his assault rifle from his back.
He reached the plastic airlock without incident and entered. While it was cycling, his COM channel crackled to life. "Sir, I thought you might want to know, we've lost contact with the techs working on the Covenant dropship," Linda said.
The Chief clenched his jaw. "No word from the Marines we sent?"
"Negative. Want me to check it out, sir?"
The Chief thought it over as the airlock cycled open. He almost didn't see the alien's head.
He lunged to the side as a thin tube shot out of its mouth and hit the airlock door, cracking the thick plastic.
The xenomorph screeched, grasping at him with its double-thumbed hands. The Chief dropped his rifle in the struggle as his arms were pinned by the alien's incredibly strong grip.
The alien lifted him into the air and brought its elongated head close to his visor. Hissing, saliva dripping from its jaws, it opened its mouth and he saw the hideous jawed tongue within, like a snake coiled to strike.
The Chief head-butted the alien, slamming the twin wedges of black armor that jutted above his visor into its skull. The creature staggered and its grip weakened. He tore one arm free and pried the other claw off his bicep, then punched the creature as hard as he could in the chest. Between his genetically enhanced strength and the powered armor, the blow sent the alien staggering.
With a second to catch his breath, the Chief realized Linda was still talking over the COM. "Master Chief, are you okay?"
"Stand by." As the alien screeched in rage, he ran low over the floor, searching for his rifle. He spotted it just as the thing crashed onto his back, knocking him to the ground.
With superhuman reflexes the Master Chief jerked his head to the side as the tongue struck the floor with a clang. He twisted as it struck again, shattering the teeth of its miniature jaws against the metal plates.
The alien screeched as the Master Chief threw it off his back. He'd lost his rifle again. The creature scrambled to its feet and hissed, preparing for another spring.
Then its torso exploded. A boom echoed through the chamber as smoking pieces of acidic flesh splattered everywhere. A few chunks hit the Chief's armor, leaving smoking burns.
Perlman stood at the airlock, shotgun in hand.
"Thanks," said the Chief, reaching for his rifle. But Perlman's attention was focused on the floor.
The Chief saw his motion tracker had turned red with targets. Then he saw the shattered plastic door to the egg chamber--and the hands reaching through it.
He started for the plastic airlock, thought better of it--there was no time to cycle. He slapped the rifle on his back and pulled four frag grenades from his belt, tossing one to Perlman.
Perlman nodded. He shot out the window of the airlock, primed the grenade and tossed it in. Both men ducked as the airlock exploded.
Several xenomorphs had crawled out of the hole on the other side of the chamber. Perlman ducked out through the demolished airlock.
The Chief backed toward the door, the three grenades in his hands. He glanced at the corpse of the Pilot in the corner, remembered Reardon's saying its race had created these awful things.
Then he primed the grenades, threw them at the XTs on the other side of the chamber, and leaped out the airlock.
Seconds later, he and Perlman hit the ground as a gout of flame roared over their heads.
"That should slow 'em down," Perlman gasped.
The Chief leaped to his feet. Perlman was a bit slower, clutching his side. The Chief decided to let it pass without comment. "Let's get back to the Pelican," said the Chief.
As they started to run, Linda's voice came over the COM channel. "Blue Two to Blue Leader. We've got hostile contacts at the LZ."
"On my way," the Chief said. "Provide cover while the rest board the Pelican."
"Understood, sir," said Linda. Quietly she added, "Hurry."
Perlman felt like his ribs were on fire. He struggled to keep pace with the Master Chief, who seemed to have forgotten Perlman wasn't a genetically-enhanced freak with powered armor. But he was an ODST, which meant he had to keep up with the Chief, genetically altered or not.
They had nearly reached the entrance when a xenomorph grabbed the Chief from above.
In his MJOLNIR armor, the Spartan weighed half a metric ton. The alien learned this the hard way as it lost its grip and the Chief dropped back to the dirt, landing on his feet. It was almost comical.
Perlman got his shotgun up, looked away to protect his visor, and pulled the trigger. The alien's head exploded in a burst of acidic blood.
The area outside the entrance was a war zone. The creatures seemed to be everywhere, scrambling over the moon's rocky surface, ignoring the wind and dust that whipped past them and obscured the humans' vision.
The Marines appeared to have holed up at three separate points: one ODST fireteam was hunkered down behind an outcropping, hosing the XTs with a mounted machine gun. Another group, which included Hurd, Reardon and another ODST, had taken cover behind the computer equipment that hadn't been loaded onto the Pelican yet. The final group, with Linda and four ODSTs, were defending the Pelican.
Perlman heard the Chief's voice over the general COM channel. "Is the Pelican ready for take-off?"
"Affirmative," replied the pilot, whose name was Cleaver.
"Blue Two, get your team inside the Pelican, then get to the Lieutenant. Cleaver, once the ODSTs are aboard I want you in the air. And I want someone on that chain gun ASAP."
Perlman did a quick count--he could see at least a dozen aliens, maybe more. And there were at least six or seven of them dead on the ground--along with a few ODSTs and techs.
An alien sprung at him from just inside the entrance. He spun and fired; the shotgun's force blew the thing apart and hurled its ragged corpse back into the derelict.
The Master Chief was already sprinting toward Reardon's position. "Red Team, be aware you have XTs on your five! Perlman, back them up!"
Perlman turned to see three aliens crawling along a cliff wall behind the first fireteam. The Master Chief, still running at full speed, fired at one of them. It dropped lifelessly to the ground behind the Marines. From nearly fifty meters away, the Spartan's aim was dead on.
Perlman broke into a run toward Red Team even as they turned to face the remaining xenomorphs. The speakers in his helmet hammered his ears with staccato gunfire, shouting, alien screeches, the howling wind and the roar of the Pelican's engines as it took off.
Seconds later, the deafening thunder of the Pelican's 70mm chain gun filled the air. A xenomorph near Perlman burst apart in a shower of acid.
"Hey! Watch where you're shooting!" Perlman growled over the COM channel. "Those things have acid blood!"
Red Team had its back to the outcropping, emptying their assault rifles and the machine gun at the rushing XTs. Perlman leapt down and added his shotgun to the mix.
Within moments, the area around them was littered with smoking corpses. Pumped with adrenaline, Perlman opened his rebreather filters a bit and caught the tangy, sulphurous scent of the xenomorphs' blood.
Pausing to catch his breath, he peeked over the outcropping--and saw Reardon, Hurd and the Master Chief vanish beneath a swarm of aliens.
The Master Chief leaped over the fusion core, mentally noting the huge danger of so much lead flying near a miniature fusion reactor. It was just one of several pieces of equipment Reardon, Hurd and the other ODST--the Chief's HUD identified him as PFC Stahl--had taken shelter behind, using it as cover from which to fire at the aliens. The sergeant and Stahl had assault rifles, while Reardon was making good use of a pistol.
The Chief ducked in with them and immediately opened fire on the aliens, who were no longer blindly charging into their bullets. Now they were moving more cautiously, jouking to the right and left and presenting their more heavily armored shoulders or back.
It was an unwelcome development. The UNSC had spent the last twenty years playing catch-up to the Covenant's technology and tactics. And now here was an entirely new creature that was little more than an animal, yet it had already killed or captured a dozen of their best troops--including a Spartan.
Still, this time the Chief had been able to put together a defense strategy. Now that they had placement, they were mowing down the aliens—they could dodge, but that only bought them a few more seconds. In theory, the Marines should have no problem slaughtering the xenomorphs...except there was something about them, the way they looked, the way they moved, that inspired a kind of primal panic. Even the Chief, with his decades of conditioning, couldn't suppress it entirely.
As he gunned down another XT, he noticed something. These aliens weren't quite the same as the ones they'd fought earlier. Their heads were smooth as glass, not ridged. Were there different kinds...?
He glanced to his right and saw Linda running straight for their position, her sniper rifle strapped to her back and her assault rifle in hand. When she was less than ten meters away, two xenomorphs tore through the ground and grabbed her legs, dragging her into the dirt.
"Chief!" Hurd shouted in his helmet, and he turned just in time to stop a xenomorph from launching itself over their makeshift barrier. He shredded it with an entire clip, then launched himself over the barrier to aid Linda.
The two xenomorphs had leapt on top of her and were trying to tear off her armor. She pulled out a foot-long knife and shoved it straight through the closest XT's face. Blood splattered as the knife came out the top of the smooth skull and the creature collapsed.
The Chief reached down, grabbed the other XT by one of the tubes on its back and yanked it off her. Even as he was bringing his rifle up, Linda was firing from her position in the dirt, emptying her assault rifle into the thing.
After making sure Hurd and Reardon were secure, the Chief quickly knelt down and tapped her helmet. A long, smoking scar marred its surface. "You okay in there?" he said.
She was already getting to her feet. "No suit breach," she confirmed. Reaching down toward the dead alien, she grabbed her knife and gave it a quick yank. Only the hilt came away in her hand, the remnants of the corroded blade dripping into the dirt. She dropped it like a hot rock. "Fred gave me that," she said, sounding annoyed.
"Master Chief!" Reardon's voice echoed in his helmet.
They spun to see five XTs overwhelm Hurd, Reardon and the other ODST. They yanked them off their feet and then began to run with them into the darkening Acheron twilight.
With a curse, the Chief took off at a full sprint, Linda hot on his heels. Four loud shots burst from her sniper rifle. The head of the xenomorph carrying Reardon splattered like an overripe banana and its corpse fell forward, sending the LT sprawling in the gray dirt. The others vanished into an invisible bolt-hole in the ground, dragging the struggling Hurd and the ODST with them.
Cursing, the Master Chief looked over to see Red Team had been surrounded as well. Where were all these XTs coming from? Assuming there was one XT for each human host, there couldn't have been more than thirty at the most, including the Mayberry crew...and they had to have killed at least two dozen so far...
The ground tore open beneath him, knocking him flat on his back. He sat up to see a xenomorph crawling out from a huge hole in the ground.
This was one noticeably larger than any he'd seen so far. As it got to its feet, he saw that its knees bent backward and that it moved on its toes rather than the flat of its feet.
But what shocked him was the thing's mouth. It wasn't anything like the human-like jaws of the others. When it screeched at him, its mouth split into four sections.
Like an Elite.
The implications distracted him so much he could only scramble backward as the xenomorph lunged at him. It managed to hit him across the chest and he was hurled through the air, his assault rifle flying from his hands. The alien leaped at him.
And then Linda was there, firing into its chest. The xenomorph's blood spattered on her armor as the armor-piercing rounds tore it apart.
The Chief got to his feet and looked at Linda; her entire chest piece and part of her helmet were smoking. "Cleaver, I need you down at my location immediately," he said over the COM channel. "We've got wounded."
"Roger," said Cleaver.
Linda was holding her hand down over an area of the black body suit beneath the armor. "Suit breach," she said. The Chief nodded. The acid had burned through the body suit to the skin; the pain had to be agonizing.
The Chief looked into the distance. "Sergeant, can you hear me?" he asked over the COM channel. "Hurd? Please respond."
He opened a channel to Perlman. "Sitrep."
"Area secure," said Perlman. "All XTs terminated."
"Roger. Check on Reardon."
The Pelican had arrived. The Chief helped Linda up onto the boarding deck. "Get that suit off before it melts through you," he said. "Then prep the Pelican for takeoff."
Linda nodded and turned to go into the ship. She paused at the ramp and looked back. "Are you coming?"
"Not yet," said the Master Chief.
Perlman ordered Red Team to head into to the Pelican, then walked over to Reardon. The officer lay face-down on the ground, his torso rising and falling gently.
"You OK, sir?" Perlman growled. When the LT didn't respond, he aimed a vicious kick at the lieutenant's side, flipping him onto his back. "Hurd's gone. What should we do, sir?"
A pained groan came over the proximity COM channel. Then a confused voice muttered, "Those...things..." The rest was incoherent babble.
Perlman looked at Reardon for a long moment, then glanced over at the Master Chief. When he was sure the Spartan wasn't looking, he knelt down, carefully set his rifle aside, and punched the LT in the head.
The Chief looked up as Perlman walked over, Reardon's inert body bouncing over his shoulder. He opened a secure COM link to the corporal.
"No," said Perlman. "Just out cold."
The Chief nodded toward the Pelican. "Get him inside. And while you're there, tell two of your troops to bring out the stasis pod."
"Aye sir." Perlman headed into the Pelican. Moments later, two ODSTs reappeared at the loading ramp, rolling the stasis pod in front of them. They hopped down and lifted it out of the Pelican. Perlman followed them out and stood next to the Master Chief.
The Chief gestured at a spot a few dozen feet away. The ODSTs guided the stasis pod over, set it down, and returned to Perlman. He looked at the Master Chief, who nodded at the Pelican. The corporal ordered the ODSTs back inside.
For a long moment, neither man spoke. Then the Chief said, "I believe these creatures represent as much of a threat to the security of the UNSC as the Covenant. As the current ranking Marine, do you concur, Corporal?"
"I do, sir," Perlman said without hesitation.
The Chief pulled two grenades out of his belt and walked over to the stasis pod. "You deserved better, Ensign," he said.
Perlman backed off as the Chief pulled the pins on the grenades and rolled them beneath the stasis pod. There was a bang and a burst of flame, and all that remained was a pile of shrapnel.
"What are we going to do now?" Perlman asked.
The Chief looked out at the dark, windy Acheron horizon. No Spartan was ever allowed to "die"--all lost Spartans were listed as MIA, Missing In Action, even if they were cut down in front of their teammates' eyes.
The Master Chief hadn't changed Ollie's status in his HUD. Not yet.
"They've got Sergeant Hurd, and our Marines. And a Spartan. I'm going after them." He turned to Perlman. "I want you to get on the Pelican. If I'm not back in two hours, get into orbit and tell Spartan-058 to do what I ordered. She'll know what it means."
"Sir," said Perlman, "You'll need back up."
The Chief shook his head. "No."
"I've served with Yelena for three years," Perlman said. "I won't leave her to those things."
"Corporal," the Master Chief said, "there's more. I had Blue-Two place a HAVOK warhead inside the Derelict. If I'm not back within two hours, I intend to have her detonate it."
Perlman shrugged. "Huh. Did the LT know about that?"
The Master Chief shook his head.
"Sounds good to me," said Perlman. When he saw the Chief was still hesitant, he added, "Look, I owe you for Delta Agma II. And a Helljumper hates owing anything to a damned Spartan."
Behind his visor, the Master Chief grinned. "All right."
He relayed his orders to Linda. "Two hours," he told her. "If we're not in contact with you by then, I want you to take off and detonate the warhead."
"Understood. Good hunting, sir."
Perlman hefted his shotgun. "So, how are we doing this?"
The Chief had called up the tunnel map on his HUD. "The XTs' nest is probably closest to the cargo hold of the Derelict. We'll head that way." He turned toward the entrance to the ancient vessel, then stopped, turned and headed for the Pelican. "Wait here."
When he reappeared at the bay door, he had his assault rifle in his hands--and an M19 SPNKr "Spanker" rocket launcher on his back. "Just some insurance. Let's go."
Age of Reclamation, Eighteenth Cycle, Unit 94 (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Beneath surface of moon Acheron (human designation)
Orn awoke when the thing fall off his face.
He became conscious just as its long, vice-like fingers loosened their death grip on his head, and gagged as a disgusting, slimy tube slid out of his throat. The thing landed on its back with a wet smack, its legs scrambling in the air, unable to find purchase. After a moment, the legs curled inward, and the thing was still.
Orn coughed for a few minutes, then tried to vomit, but his stomach was empty. In fact, he was ravenously hungry. There was a strange ache in his chest.
After assessing his condition, Orn looked around. The room was dim, but his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He was held against a wall by some kind of sticky, resin-like material. Looking to his left and right, he could see others. Grun. The two Kig-Yar. Many humans. All of them appeared to be dead.
Cautiously, Orn tested his muscles. He felt sick and weak, but with a groan, he pushed his arms against his restraints. There was a cracking sound and the resin broke, freeing his arms. After that, it was a simple matter to tear off the rest of the hardened slime.
Orn got to his feet carefully, testing his hooves and balance. Then he inspected the other victims. Moving down the line, he looked for anything he could use as a weapon.
Then he stopped, staring at the corpse that hung before him. It seemed Sub-Commander Xiven had not received the glorious death he had hoped for. Orn bowed his head in respect.
As he gazed at his former commander a moment, remembering his victories, he noticed something else. There was a gaping hole in the sub-commander's chest. It burst outward, as if he had been shot from behind, but something...something looked wrong.
"Forgive me, Sub-Commander," Orn murmured as he began to pull away the resin holding the dead Sangheili to the wall.
He pulled down the corpse and turned it over. There was no entrance wound in the sub-commander's back. Whatever had torn out of his chest had done so from the inside.
Orn felt the ache in his chest, and he knew he was already dead.
He carefully lowered Xiven's corpse to the floor. As he did so, he saw the plasma sword hilt still attached to Xiven's belt.
"Forgive me," he whispered again as he pulled the hilt from the belt. He checked the meter and found it still had three-quarters of a full charge. He thought about activating it to make sure it still worked, then decided that it was too risky; the sword would be a shining beacon to any enemies in the area.
Orn considered his options. He was clearly inside the alien derelict. The kilenchae had done something to him, something which would soon kill him. He could easily take his own life with the plasma sword. He simply had to activate the sword and swing it hard at his neck; it would shear through his flesh as if it were water. A quick, painless end.
Something hissed in the darkness. Orn spun, peering into the black.
The kilenchae were mindless beasts, but they had killed his leader and used both Xiven's and his own body dishonorably. What had Xiven said? Find the queen and destroy her. The creatures must have a hive structure, Orn realized. Killing the queen might disable the drones.
Orn knew his time was short. But his commander had given him a mission, and while he still lived, he could carry it out. But first, he had a more immediate problem to deal with.
"Come out, beasts!" he cried in Sangheili. There was a chorus of hissing around him. He squeezed the plasma sword hilt and it hissed to life, casting stark shadows throughout the chamber, but he couldn't see any of the creatures—and they didn't attack. For whatever reason, they weren't interested in fighting him.
After a moment his anger subsided, replaced by a simmering hate. He turned off the plasma sword and activated a small flashlight on his gauntlet. After a cursory search, he found a door nearby.
As he stepped toward it, his chest gave a lurch and the ache suddenly became a stabbing pain. He gasped, dropping the plasma sword and falling to his knees, coughing and heaving. It felt as if his chest muscles were stretching themselves apart, about to burst. Blind with pain, he fumbled along the ground for the plasma sword. His hand closed around the cool hilt and he squeezed, turning his blurred vision from darkness to light.
Still gasping, he pulled himself to his feet and raised the sword. As he did so, the pain in his chest seemed to double. He dropped the sword and fell to the ground, clutching his chest and screaming silently into his breathing mask. He had failed, and his life was about to end in this dishonorable, blasphemous birth...
0345 Hours, March 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
Lacking any better options, the Master Chief and Perlman simply walked into the lion's den.
They'd entered the Derelict and made their way back to the corridors where Tolmie had been taken. Initially they had run into very little resistance, which made sense--there couldn't be too many of the XTs left after the various battles they'd gone through.
And yet the things kept coming. The Spartan was good at drilling them with his assault rifle if he managed to see them in time, but Perlman was having difficulties with the shotgun. Shotguns weren't long-range weapons; the idea was to get up in your enemy's face and then splatter his guts all over. Unfortunately, that plan didn't work so well when the enemy had acid blood.
The Chief had warned him not to take the shotgun. Now, in the thick of a battle with two XTs, he reminded Perlman of that.
"Yeah, yeah," Perlman grunted. "Too late now."
They finished off the aliens. The Chief quickly scanned the chamber and its connecting corridors for more XTs while Perlman paused to catch his breath.
"Did you see that last one?" the ODST muttered. "I'd swear it had a beak or something. And its legs went backward. What the hell? These things come in different varieties?"
"That was a Jackal," said the Chief. "Or rather, its host was."
"They seem to take on some of the attributes of their hosts. Most of the ones we've seen came from humans, but I saw one with mandibles, like an Elite."
Perlman shook his head. "That's sick. I'd rather fight a dozen Elites than one of these things."
The Chief called up the resonance map on his HUD. The map was sketchy in this area; they were a good distance from the site where the ODST tech had dropped the resonance device into the tunnels. But it was clear they were very close to the root, where, the Chief hoped, the XTs had made their nest.
Oddly, the temperature had risen dramatically, and the air was humid, with a different distribution of gases than could be found on the surface. Either the ship had been designed to cater to the xenomorphs' preferred atmosphere, or the creatures themselves had some way of altering the environment.
"This way," he said, pointing at a corridor with his rifle. Perlman pushed himself off the wall--painfully, it seemed to the Chief--and followed him.
As they made their way through the dark corridors of the alien Derelict, the Chief tried not to think about how much time had elapsed since Ollie and the other Marines had been attacked. If some of them had managed to keep their armor on...
No, he thought, forcing himself to stop thinking about it. He had a job to do.
Perlman walked slowly at his side, shotgun at the ready. The Chief knew most ODSTs hated the Spartans, but Perlman was an exception. After he'd saved their lives on Delta Agma II, Perlman and a few of the other Helljumpers had dragged him away from his quarters and subjected him to round after round at a makeshift bar in some enlisted man's tent. They'd toasted him more times than he could remember, and for one rare moment, the Chief had felt more like a man than a living weapon.
When he was briefed for the Acheron mission, the Chief had been surprised to see Perlman's name on the troop manifest. The man had beaten the survival odds of an ODST. After more research, the Chief discovered that every other member of Perlman's squad from Delta Agma II had been killed in action over the years.
And now, with another squad decimated, here was Perlman, walking straight into hell with two busted ribs and a standard-issue combat suit.
"Perlman," the Chief said, "why are you still a corporal? You should at least be a sergeant by now."
Perlman chuckled. "They've offered it plenty of times. Hell, Yelena refused it until she made sure they'd asked me first. But I don't want it. I can do more good this way."
"Command needs good leaders, Perlman."
"Then they don't need me," said the ODST. "I'm a born grunt, Chief. I leave the orders to people like Hurd."
"Hurd's a good sergeant," the Chief agreed. "But you could be, too."
"Well, given our present situation, we'll probably never know. "
The Chief stopped and faced Perlman. "You think we're going to die?"
"This is a suicide mission, isn't it, sir?"
"Of course not," said the Master Chief.
Perlman stared at the Spartan, who turned and moved on. With a shake of his head, Perlman fell in step behind him.
It was forty-six minutes before the pre-arranged check-in with Linda when they found Ollie.
He lay slumped against the wall of the tunnel, surrounded by a dozen XT corpses. Parts of his MJOLNIR armor, nearly impervious to most small arms fire and a few large ones, had been torn from his arms and legs. The golden visor of his helmet had been smashed into a hundred tiny mirrors by a vicious blow that sent a spreading crack across its surface.
"My God," Perlman breathed.
There was enough blood on the floor to indicate the other captives had been injured, perhaps killed, in the fight, but the aliens hadn't left the bodies behind. The Chief tried not to speculate as to why.
Ollie and the Marines must have put up one hell of a fight—but so did the aliens. The Master Chief knelt next to the body. Ollie's rifle was still in his hand. The Chief glanced at the ammo counter: 01.
He'd been saving one last shot. And the Chief knew why. But in the end, it hadn't mattered; he'd succumbed to his injuries before the XTs could do anything else to him.
Solemnly, the Master Chief turned off the blinking light in his HUD that represented Ollie's status, switching it to MIA.
"What do we do now?" Perlman asked. "Do we carry him?"
The Master Chief stood up. "No," he said. "We have too little time as it is. Come on, we're almost there."
Orn woke an abrupt, painful gasp. He remembered the pain and looked down to find his torso intact—no gaping, bloody hole from the hideous spawn of the kilenchae. Somehow, he had been spared. His chest still ached, but the gods had let him live to finish his mission.
Wearily, Orn got to his feet. He found the plasma sword hilt and attached it to his belt. If he found the humans, he would find the kilenchae. Then he could fulfill both his missions--or die with honor in the attempt.
From somewhere in the darkness came the muffled sound of weapons fire—staccato sounds, which means human weapons. Orn ignored the growing ache in his chest and began following the sound.
As he struggled to keep up with the Master Chief, Perlman checked his watch: thirty-five minutes before the whole place became a smoking crater.
Perlman barely had time to react when two XTs materialized out of the darkness. Before he'd even raised his shotgun, the Master Chief had sent a dozen bullets into both their skulls. Perlman instinctively flinched to avoid any potential acid blood-spray.
Three more aliens detached themselves from the ceiling and fell upon them. The first the Chief dispatched with a quick burst from his rifle. The second came down on the Spartan's back, clawing at his armor and repeatedly slamming its piston-like inner jaw at his helmet. The clang of each blow struck a hollow note in the corridor; if Perlman had time to think about it, he might have realized the jolt itself would have killed a lesser mortal like himself.
But he was busy with the third alien, which had nearly taken him completely by surprise. Now he was in a deadly dance with the thing, making silly lunges and yelling at the top of his lungs trying to get it to move far enough away so he could use the shotgun. At close range, he might get a faceful of acid.
Just when he'd decided he'd have to chance it, an emerald fist came out of nowhere and smashed into the clear dome of the alien skull. The thing tumbled to the ground, screeching, and Perlman's eyes briefly registered the bizarre image of the smooth dome with a spider-webbed crack in it, sickly yellow blood seeping from the wound...
"Perlman! Kill it!"
The shouted order instantly kicked in his military instincts and he blew the creature's head apart.
The Chief had already turned away, walking back to the alien he'd thrown off his back. The thing's right arm had been torn off, Perlman noted, and both its legs were broken.
Despite his loyal belief in the superiority of the Helljumpers over all others, the familiar adage among the UNSC enlisted came to mind: never mess with a Spartan...
The Chief had his pistol out and put two rounds in the alien's face, abruptly silencing its anguished screaming.
Perlman looked at him. "Out of bullets," said the Chief, pointing at his rifle where he'd tossed it on the blackened floor of the tunnel. "Come on, we're almost there."
There was an almost disturbing lack of XT resistance as they crossed the last few corridors before entering the aliens' "nest."
The room, like the rest of this underworld beneath the Derelict, was completely dark. But the powerful flashlights attached to their armor revealed a new nightmare at every turn.
And as he panned his light around, Perlman—a veteran who'd seen the worst men and Covenant could do in the horrors of war—had to choke back a scream.
The chamber wasn't nearly as large as the immense cargo hold had been—this one was only a few dozen meters across. It was hexagonal, and mounted in the center of the room was a large cylindrical machine—no doubt once of some importance to the long-dead Pilot, but now just another mysterious monolith of a dead world.
The ceiling was low, at least compared to other places on the Derelict—just a few feet above the Master Chief's head. How the titanic Pilot had made use of the room was a mystery. The floor was covered with the three-foot tall eggs, but almost all of them were empty.
Worse of all, the floor was littered with the dried, empty husks of the pink crab-spider things, the "facehuggers." They lay about the floor like leaves, and Perlman felt bile rise in his throat at the sound of his boots crunching their corpses underfoot, or sending them skittering along the floor.
But Perlman noticed all of this afterward. What he saw first—what he couldn't tear his eyes away from—was on the walls.
Plastered to each wall, bounded by a disgusting layer of black, encrusted slime, were the bodies of dozens of men and women. As he turned, running his lights over the faces, Perlman saw many he knew, while others were so disfigured as to be unidentifiable.
Some had clearly been dead for a while, their flesh a sickly shade of pale green. Many of them were dressed in standard Marine or tech outfits, and Perlman realized they must be the crew of the Mayberry.
He turned to another part of the chamber, still scanning the faces, and then he paused. "Oh, God," he breathed, moving toward one particular corpse.
Tolmie's eyes were open, almost bulging out of his head in an expression of unimaginable agony. His chest, Perlman noted, had a gaping hole in it—from the birth of one of the alien filth, if what the Chief had told him was true. A thick line of dried blood ran from his torso to the floor.
"Oh, God, kid...I'm sorry," he muttered. He reached up and closed the milky eyes of the corpse.
The Master Chief was checking each victim. "Half are from the Mayberry," he told Perlman. "There are a few Marines who were with Ollie, and—Perlman!"
The Chief had stopped at one victim and began tearing at the black, resin-like slime holding the person to the wall.
Perlman hurried over join him. "Oh no," he said. "Yelena..."
With his enhanced strength, the Master Chief managed to free Hurd from the wall with little trouble. A quick check of her vitals showed the sergeant was unconscious, but alive.
"Yelena?" Perlman said. "Can you hear me?"
The Chief had pulled a small medical kit from a compartment in his leg armor. He selected a small, inch-long syringe and gently placed it against the woman's neck, tapping it lightly with a finger to deliver the dose.
"She's the only one alive," the Chief said tonelessly as they waited for the stimulant to take effect.
Hurd's eyelids fluttered open, and the eyes moved around slowly at first, unfocused and dilated. Finally they settled on Perlman.
"Shit. How bad is it?"
"What do you remember?" the Master Chief asked.
Hurd turned her head to look at the Spartan. "The...things took us on the surface," she said. She was trying to think through the grogginess. "Dragged us down. Stahl fought too hard, they just...they killed him. I couldn't get a good enough leverage, they had me too tight...blacked out while they were still dragging me. How long—" She fell into a coughing fit, then continued, "how long was I down here?"
They all knew what the question meant: had there been enough time for her to be infected?
"About two hours," said the Chief.
The mention of time reminded Perlman to check his watch. "Sir, we have twenty-five minutes before we have to check in. Is there..." He looked at Hurd. "...is there any way to tell?"
"Not without some real medical equipment," the Chief said.
"Just go," Hurd said, grunting with pain as she started to get to her feet. "Get the hell out of here. We can't risk one of those things escaping."
"No!" said Perlman. At first he'd assumed it really had been a suicide mission, a chance to settle the score with the beasts and make sure no one was suffering down here. But now that they'd found Hurd, he couldn't accept the idea they'd come down here just to fail—and seeing Tolmie had made him even more determined to save Hurd if they could. "There's no evidence you've got one of them in you, Yelena—"
"Belay that shit, Corporal!" Hurd said through clenched teeth. "And if you call me Yelena again, I'll shove that shotgun up your goddamned babygirl vagina."
Behind his visor, Perlman's mouth gaped. "Understood, sir."
"Sergeant," said the Chief quietly.
Hurd had pulled herself to her feet. She ignored the Chief for a moment, flexing her right arm, then her left. She hissed. "Something's broken in this one," she said, holding her left forearm.
"Sergeant," the Chief said again. Perlman saw his pistol was in his hand, and understood.
Hurd regarded him coolly. "You planning to get out of here before they nuke the place?"
"Yes," said the Chief, and Perlman realized that Hurd had been in on the Chief's plan all along.
Hurd reached behind her back, drawing her own pistol from its holster. "You know what? If you don't mind, Chief, I'd like to stay around a bit longer." She nodded her head toward the sad, shadowy shapes along the wall. "I wouldn't mind a little payback for this. But when the time comes, you do what you have to. Sound good?"
The Chief regarded her silently for a moment, then nodded. "Stand by," he said. "Let me check the map." After a few seconds, he turned and indicated a door. "This way leads to a tunnel that seems to move upward toward the surface. It should be a bit shorter than the way we took down here, but..."
"But you can't be sure," Hurd finished.
Perlman checked to make sure his shotgun had its full complement of shells. "Twenty-one minutes," he said. "No time to—"
His words were choked off as a black, six-fingered hand clamped around his throat.
To the Master Chief, the whole event seemed to unfold in slow motion—the alien grabbing Perlman roughly by the torso and throat, yanking him toward a hole in the ceiling he hadn't even noticed.
"No!" Hurd screamed, grabbing for Perlman's legs. The Chief knew that was a lost cause, likely to result either in failure or, worse, a headless ODST. But as the sergeant delayed Perlman's abductor, the Chief raised his pistol, paused to aim, and pulled the trigger.
There was an enraged screech and Perlman abruptly fell; the Chief managed to get under him fast enough to prevent a broken neck.
"Nice shot," Hurd said as they helped Perlman to his feet. A part of his helmet was smoking where the alien's blood splatter had hit it. Hurd quickly undid the snaps and pulled it off.
"Ugh," Perlman said, coughing in the thick, moist air. "Put it back on, I'd rather my head melted off than smell this shit..."
"Do you have a rebreather?" the Chief asked him. "For when we get to the surface." He avoided the word if.
Perlman, still coughing, nodded. "In my pack."
More alien screeches sounded from the ceiling and some of the other doors. "Time to go," Hurd said, hauling Perlman to his feet.
The Chief checked the map again in his HUD as they headed back into the corridors. The route he'd selected led them through one more large room before trailing off toward the surface. It was easier to deal with the XTs in the corridors, which were fairly small and narrow—as long as you kept an eye on the ceiling. But there was no telling what might be in that last chamber...
For a few moments, Orn thought he had lost track of the humans. The gunfire had stopped, and the Sangheili thought they'd finally fallen prey to the kilenchae. But no, now he could hear their murmured speech through the wall. Soon he heard their footsteps echoing away.
He began jogging in the same direction, his hooves striking the ground as lightly as possible to avoid tripping; the kilenchae's disgusting secretions were everywhere. While he couldn't be sure this tunnel would intersect with the one the humans were taking, he knew sooner or later he would find them. The gods had spared him, so that he might complete his holy mission.
Orn noticed the echo of his steps had become more spread out, and he stopped. He could see little in the darkness, but his ears told him he had entered a chamber. There was a rhythmic hissing sound to his right, like an air pump. That might explain the breathable air this deep below the ancient vessel, he thought.
He was trying to decide how to proceed when he heard the sound of human footsteps. They were faint, and somewhat unsteady—they'd been slowed by an injured member, he realized. Fools. Far better to slay the injured then try to hold out the hope of escape from this dark hell.
He moved closer to the wall, to the left side of the entrance to the tunnel the humans were coming up. His three-fingered hand moved to the plasma sword and he snapped it off his belt, running his thumb over the switch without pressing it.
He would slay the humans, then find a way to destroy the kilenchae. Perhaps there was some sort of self-destruct system on the alien derelict, though its circuits would be long inactive...or perhaps there was something in the engine room he could sabotage. It mattered little, so long as the kilenchae—and himself—were destroyed. But he had so little time...
The humans were on the verge of reaching the chamber. He could make out heavy footsteps—very heavy, almost like those of a Sangheili—which meant it had to be one of the human demons.
He had no more time to think about it, because the humans were nearly upon him. Pressing himself to the wall, he waited until he saw a glimpse of a shape around the corner and he thumbed the plasma sword switch, roared and swung the sword out.
The blade struck emerald armor and rebounded with a blinding flash, while the human was knocked backward from the force.
It was a Demon! Orn recognized the green armor and golden visor from videos he'd seen of the creatures in action...but he quickly pushed away the panic that bubbled up in his throat. They were still just humans. Its armor may have saved it from his first blow, but it could never withstand a second. With a snarl, Orn prepared for another strike.
The hissing in the corner abruptly rose to a horrible, breathy scream.
Startled, Orn turned, the glow of the plasma sword casting an eerie light across the room. A massive object sat at the far end. It looked like some sort of strange ebony altar, with a large v-shaped plate in the center and numerous bony appendages jutting out behind it. Momentarily forgetting the Demon—who was getting to his feet, but seemed just as confused—Orn involuntarily took a curious step forward.
Then the thing moved.
Faster than Orn could believe, an immense limb—a tail?--snapped across the room and struck him on the back, hurling him toward the living altar and sending him sprawling on his face before it like a penitent.
His shock turning to rage, he got to his feet and looked at the thing. He'd managed to hold on to his plasma sword and he thumbed it to life, casting a bright glow before him.
The apex of the v-shaped alter was inches from his face. As he gazed up at it, a pair of jaws slipped out from behind it, the teeth dripping with slime. And then he knew what it was.
He remembered the sword too late; a claw lashed out and casually smacked it away from his hand. Another hand snatched him by the back of his armor and lifted him into the air. The Queen hissed again.
Summoning his courage, he spat on the Queen's plated head..
It was then that the ache in his chest returned, the pain far more intense than it had ever been before. The Queen's other prehensile hand clamped onto his chest armor, gripped it deep with its recesses, and tore it off with one bone-jarring yank.
Orn felt more pain than he had ever imagined as the bones of his chest began to buckle before a hideous strength. And his last, awful thought, before the creature tore through his chest in a burst of blood and bone, was that the Queen was calling to it.
Through his enhanced visor, the Master Chief saw everything—the Elite's brief struggle with the gigantic XT, the hideous birth that followed after, the way the Queen tossed the lifeless body aside once the disgusting newborn hit the floor and scampered into the shadows.
Then, the giant head turned and looked straight at the Master Chief, and he suddenly felt a surge of vertigo as he looked at those claws and teeth, the dripping slime...it was as if the creature was clutching at his mind, playing at the tiny mote of pure, animalistic fear he had spent a lifetime learning to suppress...
The Chief's mind cleared. He noticed the huge white egg sac behind it now, and realized it had to be some sort of queen for this "nest." The thing was still staring at him, the skin around its jaws pulled tight in the rictus grin of a corpse. The room was filled with eggs, though the nearest ones remained closed, for some reason. At each entrance to the chamber was a cluster of the drones; presumably the eggs were the reason they were holding back.
"Chief?" said Perlman over the COM channel. "We've got a problem here...we're cut off. And we've got ten minutes left."
The Chief nodded, holstered his pistol and slowly removed the SPNKR rocket launcher from his back. The Queen watched, her breath coming in wheezy, ragged gasps. The magazine held two rockets; he figured he'd hit the Queen with the first and then try to make sure the blowback from the second one took out all three of them.
As the Chief shouldered the launcher, Hurd put a on his arm. "No," she said. "You don't have to do this."
Perlman said, "Not really much of an option here, Sergeant."
"No. You have two shots, right? Which entrance leads the way out?"
The Chief pointed to the tunnel on the far wall, to the left of the Queen.
"Does that tunnel link up with any others?"
The Chief consulted his map; it was sketchy in this area, but there didn't seem to be any branches off that particular tunnel. "Not that I can see."
"OK. Give me the launcher. Hit that entrance with all you have and if you make it through, I'll cover you."
"Yelena—" said Perlman.
"Shut the hell up."
"Sergeant," the Master Chief said, "with all due respect, I'm not—"
"With all due respect, Master Chief, the Covenant are still out there and we've already lost one Spartan and a dozen good Marines today."
The Master Chief considered this quickly, then nodded. He set down the rocket launcher and Hurd handed him her pistol. Them he gave her a quick salute, which she returned.
"Now give me a minute with this grunt," said Hurd.
The Chief nodded and started to move toward the tunnel, keeping an eye on the still-watchful Queen.
"Yelena..." Perlman said.
"Joel...tell my parents for me, OK? And another thing—take the damned promotion this time. I don't want the boys getting stuck with some know-nothing asshole from outside the platoon. You got that, Corporal?"
"Yeah. I got it." Perlman's voice was thick.
"Good. Now get the hell out of here."
Perlman hesitated, then saluted her. She returned it and then gave him a little shove in the direction of the Chief.
Her quick movement must have drawn the attention of the Queen or the drones, because then all hell broke loose.
The Chief had his own pistol and Hurd's in his hands and was charging toward the entrance of the tunnel just as a half-dozen XTs were swarming out of it. The leading alien went down, with four bullets—two from each gun—drilled neatly into its gleaming forehead.
Then Perlman was at his side, shotgun booming. Two more drones had their upper bodies splattered against the wall.
The Master Chief dispatched another drone with the pistols, then tossed the empty weapons aside and leaped on the last one bare-handed. A few seconds later, the shattered body of the alien hit the floor, crushing several eggs. The Queen screamed.
"That pissed her off," Perlman said.
Drones began boiling out of the other entrances, running past Hurd in their effort to get at the Chief. And all the while the Queen screamed.
The Chief took off up the tunnel. Perlman hesitated just a second, glancing back at Hurd. She looked at him meaningfully. With a nod, he turned and fled up the corridor.
As the last of the drones vanished into the corridor behind the Chief and Perlman, Hurd turned to the Queen. She was, well, royally pissed, and still screeching bloody murder. Hurd watched the thing for a moment, savoring it.
Then there was a sound like a knife tearing through wet canvas, and Hurd saw the Queen was freeing herself from the egg sac—presumably to pursue the Chief and Perlman.
It was time. Hurd got down on one knee, shouldered the rocket launcher, and brought the barrel to bear on the Queen.
0530 Hours, March 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Dropship 77-Troop Carrier ("Pelican") Delta 421, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System
"Just registered minor seismic tremor beneath the Derelict, sir," one of the Marines said to Linda. "Looks like a rocket detonation."
Linda's hands tightened around the Pelican controls. They were just minutes away from the two-hour deadline the Master Chief had set for them. If he was using the rocket launcher, that could mean the situation had become desperate—or hopeless.
Linda decided to make one last circle over the Derelict, which would bring them to the two-hour mark. The clock on her HUD ticked off the last few seconds with agonizing slowness. By the time she'd finished the circle, it was thirty seconds past the Chief's deadline.
Linda didn't hesitate any longer. "Prep for planetary departure," she said over the ship's COM. "We're getting out of here."
As the Marines strapped themselves in, she pulled out the remote detonator for the HAVOK warhead. Once the Pelican had reached a safe distance, she'd detonate it and destroy the Derelict, the Covenant ships and any XTs for a ten-mile radius.
"Sir!" the Marine monitoring the service said. "Registering more tremors—much smaller this time..."
"Grenades," Linda said. "Where?"
The Marine indicated a spot about a quarter of a mile from the Derelict. Linda grabbed the controls and the dropship lurched to the west.
"There!" the Marine cried.
Below them was the howling surface of Acheron, its surface just starting to be lit by the glow of the gas giant it orbited. As they watched, a small patch of ground cracked and broke open and a black glove came out, followed by a green armored arm.
Linda hit the COM. "Open the cargo bay!" She gunned the Pelican's engine, aiming for the widening hole. Gray dirt was thrown in all directions as the Master Chief pulled himself to the surface. Then he turned and reached down and Perlman appeared, clutching his rebreather to his face while using his other arm to swing his shotgun at the dark arms that clutched at him from inside the hole.
The Chief and Perlman started to run as the XTs boiled out of the hole like ants from an anthill.
The Pelican roared overhead; Perlman could feel the heat from the engines through his armor. The Master Chief was in front of him, legs churning as he tore up the dusty surface of the moon. Perlman could feel his owns strength ebbing. His ribs felt like they were on fire.
Behind him he could hear the screeches of the XTs...God, even if he survived he'd be hearing those sounds forever...
Ahead of them the Pelican had come down, hovering with its back to them just a few feet above the ground. The cargo bay door was open. It was less than thirty feet ahead, but it felt like miles.
But then the Chief was hopping onto the ramp, and he turned and grabbed Perlman bodily and practically tossed him into the dropship.
The Pelican's engines roared as it took off into the sky. As the cargo ramp began to close, one XT crawled over the edge. The Master Chief was already moving toward it when another Marine stopped him.
"Allow me, sir." The Marine lifted a shotgun, took aim, and blew the alien away. Perlman watched its body tumble into the clouds as the ramp closed.
The Master Chief made sure all the Marines—including Perlman—were strapped into their seats, then he opened a COM channel. "Linda, are we out of range yet?"
Beneath the Derelict, the alien drones clattered through the tunnels, seeking out the special egg that contained their next Queen now that the old one was dead. As they ran, they paid no attention to a small, black half-sphere that had been carefully placed in the egg chamber beneath the Pilot's room.
Just as a drone had located the proper egg, the spikes along its side denoting it as royalty, the world around it went white.
"Master Chief." Linda sounded relieved. "We just received a message from the Tyger. They were playing cat-and-mouse with a Covenant frigate near the edge of the system, but Captain Arad managed to destroy it. They'll rendezvous with us at 0800."
"Understood." The Chief had taken the seat across from Perlman. The ODST had his helmet off and was draining a thermos.
"Water?" the Chief said.
Perlman finished the thermos, wiped his mouth and grinned. "Beer," he said. "Watery beer, though. Quenches the thirst."
The Chief chuckled. "You'll get a commendation for this mission, Corporal."
Perlman grimaced. "Not likely," he said, nodding toward Reardon, who was snoring in his seat. He had yet to regain consciousness. "Not once he has his say."
The Chief had a hunch Reardon's mishandling of the entire mission meant he wouldn't have his say in anything for a long, long time. "We'll see," said the Chief. "But if they do offer to make you sergeant, will you take it?"
Some of the other Marines, having noticed Hurd had not made it back, were paying attention. Perlman thought it over.
"What the hell," he said. "Anything to get out of taking orders from you asshole Spartans."
As the Marines struggled to stifle their snickers, the Chief made his own show of deep thought. "Corporal Perlman..." he began, and then he suggested the ODST do something that would require him to be hermaphroditic and double-jointed.
Perlman laughed, long and loud. "You know what we Helljumpers say about Spartans, Chief? Never mess with a Spartan—"
"—because they have no sense of humor," the Chief said.